Microbial Oasis Discovered Beneath Dry Atacama Desert

Posted on February 16, 2012

Microorganisms Atacama Desert

Scientists have found microorganisms growing in salt crystals below the surface of the Atacama Desert in South America. The desert is the driest on Earth. The microorganisms were discovered at a depth of between 2 and 3 meters, without any oxygen or sunlight.

Researchers from the Center of Astrobiology (Spain) and the Catholic University of the North in Chile found theprimitive microorganisms in hypersaline substrates using an instrument named SOLID (Signs of Life Detector). This same instrument could one day help discover life on Mars.

Victor Parro, researcher from the Center of Astrobiology (INTA-CSIC, Spain) and coordinator of the study, says, "We have named it a 'microbial oasis' because we found microorganisms developing in a habitat that was rich in halite (rock salt) and other highly hygroscopic compounds (anhydrite and perchlorate) that absorb water."

Parro also says, "If there are similar microbes on Mars or remains in similar conditions to the ones we have found in Atacama, we could detect them with instruments like SOLID."

Astrobiology 11(10): 969-96, December 2011. Doi: 10.1089/ast.2011.0654.

Photo: Parro et al./CAB/SINC

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