June 11, 2012
They may not be from outer space, but researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder recently announced they have discovered some truly alien life forms in one of the most inhospitable locales on Earth.
Led by Steve Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and the chair of the school's department of ecology and environmental biology, the group visited the barren mountain tops of the Atacama region on the border of Chile and Argentina looking for previously unknown microbes. What they found were organisms that were able to survive in an area where most living beings die before they can even begin to adapt.
The Atacama region, in the north of Chile, sits within the famed Ring of Fire and comprises a number of massive volcanoes, some of which reach more than 20,000 feet above sea level. The region even sports the single tallest volcano in the world, Nevado Ojos del Salada, which stands at more than 22,600 feet tall.
While glaciers continue to retreat in places in parts of the Andes, the ice disappeared from the Atacama's mountain tops 48,000 year ago. With the dry air at their peaks, most of the snow that does fall quickly sublimates, leaving the area incredibly dry. This can lead to dramatic swings in temperature. At one point the team suffered through a frigid night at 14 degree Fahrenheit only to see the temperature reach a blistering 133 degrees Fahrenheit the next day.
At the same time, the thin atmosphere lets through a great deal of ultraviolet light, which can prove damaging to many organisms, and many of the nutrients once present in the soil have since been stripped to filter down the mountainsides.
Yet despite all the reasons life has to give up and find somewhere else to go, Schmidt's team found a number of hardy microbes that were able to adapt to the harsh conditions. Admittedly, the soil samples the team took saw extremely limited diversity, with only about 20 distinct life forms identified. Normally, only one gram of soil might have thousands of different microbes.
But the organisms they team did find were fascinating in the differences they displayed from most creatures on Earth. Without access to any significant amount of water, the creatures could not rely on photosynthesis. Instead, Schmidt hypothesizes that the creatures use chemical reactions between gases that drift by the mountain tops in small amounts, like carbon monoxide and dimethylsulfide.
"We haven’t formally identified or characterized the species," said CU-Boulder doctoral student Ryan Lynch. "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."
New life brings new possibilities
The first application the researchers intend to put the microbes to is an attempt to compare the conditions they live in with what organisms might be exposed to in places like Mars. Reuters reports the Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to reach Mars on August 6, and intends to search for signs of preserved life on the red planet.
Scientists have been looking for signs of life elsewhere in the galaxy for years, searching the skies with radio telescopes looking for a coherent signal. But most researchers expect that humanity's best chance of finding alien life probably comes from relatively simple microbes in the harsh environments not unlike the Atacama region. By mapping these conditions, researchers hope they could narrow down the best places to search and to better understand what life can survive.
Beyond the search for life though, biotech engineering research could be able to make use of the new techniques for energy generation these microbes have developed, particularly as more money goes into systems such as oil-producing algae.