May 24, 2024

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Scientists have discovered a mysterious ecosystem beneath Earth's driest desert

Scientists have discovered a mysterious ecosystem beneath Earth's driest desert

The Atacama Desert — a barren, uninhabited region in northern Chile that is home to some of the most perceptive ground-based telescopes on Earth — is actually teeming with life underground, according to a team of researchers who recently examined its soil.

like Live Science It reminds us that scientists have already discovered microbial life beneath the surface of the desert. What we have not yet appreciated is the diversity of this life. The team behind this latest discovery took soil samples at a depth of 13.78 feet (4.2 metres) in the Yungai region of the desert, observing different microbial communities across depths and soil types. It was the team's research published This week in PNAS Nexus.

The organisms include extremophile cyanobacteria and actinobacteria, as well as a class of nitrogen-fixing bacteria called Alphaproteobacteria. According to the team, the porous nature of gypsum crystals creates a microclimate that protects microbes from ultraviolet radiation, but allows enough light to pass through so the microbes can undergo photosynthesis.

Members of the Yungai research team.

“High salt concentrations likely halted microbial colonization in the lower part of the playa deposits,” the team wrote, but “in the underlying alluvial fan deposits, microbial communities are re-emerging, perhaps because gypsum provides an alternative water source.”

There is very little water in the Atacama; a Study for 4 years They were conducted during the El Niño phenomenon that brought heavy rains to other parts of central South America and caused only one rainfall in the valley, amounting to only 0.091 inch (2.3 mm). The team added that similar gypsum deposits on Mars could provide a source of water for microbial life on the red planet, if they exist.

While NASA has I tried to drill into the surface of Mars Before, and The Perseverance rover collected a large amount of interesting rock samples On the planet, no expedition has ever drilled as deep as researchers recently did in the Atacama. The Chilean desert is very desolate Scientists use it as an analogue of MarsSo, if life can persist beneath its surface, it's worth considering the possibility of this happening on the Red Planet as well.

“Although gypsum may not be ubiquitous beneath the surface of all deserts, the existence of this niche beneath the surface could indicate that the global biodiversity of deserts has been underestimated to date, and that under certain conditions a subsurface community could The surface continues into the deeper layers of drier areas, they wrote: “Places on Earth.”

The latest research bucks the trend of forward-looking science in the Atacama, revealing life seeking to exist in its alien, albeit terrestrial, surroundings.

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