Gases rising from deep within the Earth are fueling the world's highest-known microbial ecosystems, which have been detected near the rim of the 19,850-foot-high Socompa volcano in the Andes by a University of Colorado at Boulder research team.
The new study shows the emission of water, carbon dioxide and methane from small volcanic vents near the summit of Socompa sustains complex microbial ecosystems new to science in the barren, sky-high landscape, said CU-Boulder Professor Steve Schmidt. He likened the physical environment of the Socompa volcano summit -- including the thin atmosphere, intense ultraviolet radiation and harsh climate -- to the physical characteristics of Mars, where the hunt for microbial life is under way by NASA.
The microbial communities atop Socompa -- which straddles Argentina and Chile high in the Atacama Desert -- are in a more extreme environment and not as well understood as microbes living in hydrothermal vents in deep oceans, he said. The Socompa microbial communities are located adjacent to several patches of green, carpet-like plant communities -- primarily mosses and liverworts -- discovered in the 1980s by Stephan Halloy of Conservation International in La Paz, Bolivia, a co-author on the new CU-Boulder study.
"These sites are unique little oases in the vast, barren landscape of the Atacama Desert and are supported by gases from deep within the Earth," said Schmidt, a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department. "Scientists just haven't been looking for microorganisms at these elevations, and when we did we discovered some strange types found nowhere else on Earth."
A paper on the subject by Schmidt and his colleagues was published in the February 2009 issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Co-authors on the study included CU-Boulder's Elizabeth Costello and Sasha Reed, Preston Sowell of Boulder's Stratus Consulting Inc., and Halloy.
|Contact: Steve Schmidt|
University of Colorado at Boulder