Navigation Links
AGU: Unique microbes found in extreme environment
Date:6/8/2012

WASHINGTON Researchers who were looking for organisms that eke out a living in some of the most inhospitable soils on Earth have found a hardy few. A new DNA analysis of rocky soils in the martian-like landscape on some volcanoes in South America has revealed a handful of bacteria, fungi, and other rudimentary organisms, called archaea, which seem to have a different way of converting energy than their cousins elsewhere in the world.

"We haven't formally identified or characterized the species," said Ryan Lynch, a microbiologist with the University of Colorado in Boulder who is one of the finders of the organisms, "but these are very different than anything else that has been cultured. Genetically, they're at least 5 percent different than anything else in the [DNA] database of 2.5 million sequences." The database represents a close-to comprehensive collection of microbes, he added, and researchers worldwide add to it as they publish papers about the organisms.

Life gets little encouragement on the incredibly dry slopes of the tallest volcanoes in the Atacama region, where Lynch's co-author, University of Colorado microbiologist Steven Schmidt, collected soil samples. Much of the sparse snow that falls on the terrain sublimates back to the atmosphere soon after it hits the ground, and the soil is so depleted of nutrients that nitrogen levels in the scientists' samples were below detection limits. Ultraviolet radiation in this high-altitude environment can be twice as intense as in a low-elevation desert. And, while the researchers were on site, temperatures dropped to -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) one night, and spiked to 56 C (133 F) the next day.

How the newfound organisms survive under such circumstances remains a mystery. Although Lynch, Schmidt, and their colleagues looked for genes known to be involved in photosynthesis, and peered into the cells using fluorescent techniques to look for chlorophyll, the scientists couldn't find any evidence that the microbes were photosynthetic. Instead, they think the microbes might slowly convert energy by means of chemical reactions that extract energy and carbon from wisps of gases such as carbon monoxide and dimethyl sulfide that blow into the desolate mountain area. The process wouldn't give the bugs a high energy yield, Lynch said, but it could be enough as it adds up over time.

A scientific article about the new findings has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

While normal soil has thousands of microbial species represented in just a gram of soil, and garden soils even more, remarkably few species have made their home in the barren Atacama mountain soil, the new research suggests.

"To find a community dominated by less than 20 [species] that's pretty amazing for a soil microbiologist," Schmidt said. He has studied sites in the Peruvian Andes where, four years after a glacier retreats, there are thriving, diverse microbe communities. But on these volcanoes on the Chile-Argentina border, which rise to altitudes of more than 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) above sea level and which have been ice-free for 48,000 years, the bacterial and fungal ecosystems have not undergone succession to more diverse communities.

"It's mostly due to the lack of water, we think," Schmidt said. "Without water, you're not going to develop a complex community."

"Overall, there was a good bit lower diversity [in the Atacama samples] than you would find in most soils, including other mountainous mineral soils," Lynch said. That makes the Atacama microbes very unusual, he added. They probably had to adapt to the extremely harsh environment, or may have evolved in different directions than similar organisms elsewhere due to long-term geographic isolation.

Growth on the mountain might be intermittent, Schmidt suggested, especially if soils only have water for a short time after snowfall. In those situations, there could be microbes that grow when it snows, then fall dormant, perhaps for years, before they grow again. High elevation sites are great places to study simple microbial communities, ecosystems that haven't evolved past the very basics of a few bacteria and fungi, he said. "There are a lot of areas in the world that haven't been studied from a microbial perspective, and this is one of the main ones," he said. "We're interested in discovering new forms of life, and describing what those organisms are doing, how they make a living."

Schmidt's lab, along with others, is studying how microorganisms are dispersed that is, how they travel from one site to another. There's evidence that one common method of microbe transport is through the air they're caught up in winds, sucked up into clouds, form rain droplets, and then fall back to the ground somewhere else as precipitation. But on mountains like Volcn Llullaillaco and Volcn Socompa, the high ultraviolet radiation and extreme temperatures make the landscape inhospitable to outside microbes.

"This environment is so restrictive, most of those things that are raining down are killed immediately," Schmidt said. "There's a huge environmental filter here that's keeping most of these things from growing."

The next steps for the researchers are laboratory experiments using an incubator that can mimic the extreme temperature fluctuations to better understand how any organism can live in such an unfriendly environment. Studying the microbes and finding out how they can live at such an extreme can help set boundaries for life on Earth, Schmidt said, and tells scientists what life can stand. There's a possibility that some of the extremophiles might utilize completely new forms of metabolism, whereby they convert energy in a novel way.

Schmidt is also working with astrobiologists to model what past conditions were like on Mars. With their rocky terrain, thin atmosphere, and high radiation, the Atacama volcanoes are some of the most similar places on Earth to the Red Planet.

"If we know, on Earth, what the outer limits for life were, and they know what the paleoclimates on Mars were like, we may have a better idea of what could have lived there," he said.


'/>"/>

Contact: Peter Weiss
pweiss@agu.org
202-777-7507
American Geophysical Union
Source:Eurekalert

Related biology news :

1. A new pipewort species from a unique, but fragile habitat in India
2. Unique adaptations to a symbiotic lifestyle reveal novel targets for aphid insecticides
3. Killer silk: Making silk fibers that kill anthrax and other microbes in minutes
4. Breast-fed babies gut microbes contribute to healthy immune systems
5. Honoring the fundamental role of microbes in the natural history of our planet
6. CU-Boulder-led team finds microbes in extreme environment on South American volcanoes
7. Kessler Foundation implements Ekso Bionics first commercial robotic exoskeleton
8. Hiding in plain sight, new frog species found in New York City
9. Genetic variation in East Asians found to explain resistance to cancer drugs
10. Circadian rhythms have profound influence on metabolic output, UCI study reveals
11. 1 solution to global overfishing found
Post Your Comments:
*Name:
*Comment:
*Email:
(Date:6/2/2016)... The Department of Transport Management (DOTM) ... million US Dollar project, for the , Supply ... Enrolment, and IT Infrastructure , to ... implementation of Identity Management Solutions. Numerous renowned international vendors participated ... was selected for the most compliant and innovative ...
(Date:5/20/2016)... 20, 2016  VoiceIt is excited to announce ... By working together, VoiceIt and VoicePass ... and VoicePass take slightly different approaches to voice ... security and usability. ... new partnership. "This marketing and technology ...
(Date:4/28/2016)... and BANGALORE, India , April 28, ... Systems, a product subsidiary of Infosys (NYSE: INFY ... announced a global partnership that will provide end ... use mobile banking and payment services.      (Logo: ... key innovation area for financial services, but it also plays ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:6/23/2016)... YORK , June, 23, 2016  The Biodesign ... to envision new ways to harness living systems and ... Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City ... than 130 participating students, showcased projects at MoMA,s Celeste ... Paola Antonelli , MoMA,s senior curator of architecture ...
(Date:6/23/2016)... ... ... STACS DNA Inc., the sample tracking software company, today announced that Dr. ... STACS DNA as a Field Application Specialist. , “I am thrilled that Dr. ... STACS DNA. “In further expanding our capacity as a scientific integrator, Hays brings a ...
(Date:6/23/2016)... , June 23, 2016  Blueprint Bio, a ... discoveries to the medical community, has closed its Series ... Matthew Nunez . "We have received a ... the capital we need to meet our current goals," ... provide us the runway to complete validation on the ...
(Date:6/23/2016)... ... June 23, 2016 , ... ... at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and will showcase its product’s latest features from ... also be presenting a scientific poster on Disrupting Clinical Trials in The Cloud ...
Breaking Biology Technology: