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A rare rainstorm wakes undead microbes in Chile’s Atacama Desert

Superbloom solves mystery of what can survive in one of the driest places on Earth

2:33pm, February 27, 2018
Atacama Desert

STAYIN’ ALIVE  This superdry area in the Atacama Desert looks devoid of life. But after a rainstorm, scientists found living microbes in the soil.

Chile’s Atacama Desert is so dry that some spots see rain only once a decade. Salt turns the sandy soil inhospitable, and ultraviolet radiation scorches the surface. So little can survive there that scientists have wondered whether snippets of DNA found in the soil are just part of the desiccated skeletons of long-dead microbes or traces of hunkered-down but still living colonies.

A rare deluge has solved that mystery. Storms that dumped a few centimeters of rain on the Atacama in March 2015 — a decade’s worth in one day — sparked a microbial superbloom, researchers report February 26 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That storm initially threw a wrench into plans for scientists to get a snapshot of microbial life under normal, hyperarid conditions in the Atacama. “But in the end, it came back as a lucky stroke,” says study coauthor Dirk

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