"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 travel from one site to another. 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 UV 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, converting energy in a novel way.
Schmidt also is 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 wh
|Contact: Steve Schmidt|
University of Colorado at Boulder