A University of Colorado at Boulder team working at 16,400 feet in the Peruvian Andes has discovered how barren soils uncovered by retreating glacier ice can swiftly establish a thriving community of microbes, setting the table for lichens, mosses and alpine plants.
The discovery is the first to reveal how microbial life becomes established and flourishes in one of the most extreme environments on Earth and has implications for how life may have once flourished on Mars, said Professor Steve Schmidt of CU-Boulder's ecology and evolutionary biology department. The study also provides new insights into how microorganisms are adapting to global warming in cold ecosystems on Earth.
A paper on the subject was published online Aug. 27 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the United Kingdom's national academy of science. Co-authors included CU-Boulder's Sasha Reed, Diana Nemergut, Stuart Grandy, Andrew Hill, Elizabeth Costello, Allen Meyer, Jason Neff and Andrew Martin as well as the University of Montana's Cory Cleveland and the University of Toledo's Michael Weintraub.
The researchers found that three species of a photosynthetic microbe known as cyanobacteria colonized the soil within the first year, either by dropping in from tiny pockets of dirt wedged in the receding glacier or blowing in as spores. Just three years later there were 20 different species of bacteria, growing by snatching gaseous forms of carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere, Schmidt said.
"The most startling finding was how much the diversity increased in just four years in what was seemingly barren soil," said Schmidt, whose study was funded by the National Science Foundation's Microbial Observatories Program. The CU-Boulder team conducted their research from 2000 to 2005 on the Puca Glacier in Peru -- which is receding uphill about 60 feet a year -- by collecting samples and measuring soil chemistry and strength.
In 2005, Schmid
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University of Colorado at Boulder