Recent Rains In Atacama Desert Caused The Death Of Microbes, Study Finds

Posted: Nov 18 2018, 12:40pm CST | by , Updated: Nov 18 2018, 12:48pm CST, in News | Latest Science News

 
Recent Rains in Atacama Desert Caused the Death of Microbes, Study Finds
Credit: Carlos González Silva

The never-before-seen rainfall triggered enormous devastation in the microbial species that lived in the driest and oldest desert.

Life as we know it needs water to survive and thrive. But scientists have observed something unusual in one of the driest places on Earth. When rain fell on the arid Atacama Desert, it brought devastation.

Atacama Desert, located in northern Chile, is the driest desert on Earth and only the toughest microbes can survive there. Its hyper arid core has not received any rain during the past 500 years. When the desert finally experienced rainfall three years ago, it caused the extinction of most of the microbes that had lived there.

“Our group has discovered that, contrary to what could be expected intuitively, the never-before-seen rainfall has not triggered a flowering of life in Atacama, but instead, the rains have caused enormous devastation in the microbial species that inhabited the region before the heavy precipitations,” said co-author Alberto Fairen from Cornell University.

“Our work shows that high rainfall has caused the massive extinction of most indigenous microbial species. The extinction range reaches 85 percent, as a result of the osmotic stress that has caused the sudden abundance of water: The autochthonous microorganisms, which were perfectly adapted to thrive under conditions of extreme dryness and had strategies optimized for the extraction of the scarce humidity of their environment, have been unable to adapt to the new conditions of sudden flooding and have died from excess water.”

Atacama Desert was originally inhabited by 16 different microbial species. Only two to four species remained alive after it encountered rain.

“The extinction event was massive,” said Fairen. “Our results show for the first time that providing suddenly large amounts of water to microorganisms – exquisitely adapted to extract meager and elusive moisture from the most hyperdry environments – will kill them from osmotic shock.”

The results also have implications for understanding the microbiology of extremely arid environments such as Red Planet. Atacama Desert is one of the Earth's places that has remarkably similar environment to that of Mars.

“Mars had a first period, the Noachian (between 4.5 and 3.5 billion years ago), in which there was a lot of water on its surface," said Fairén "Therefore, our Atacama study suggests that the recurrence of liquid water on Mars could have contributed to the disappearance of Martian life, if it ever existed, instead of representing an opportunity for resilient microbiota to bloom again.”

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.

 

 

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