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.
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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 Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at the Technische Universität Berlin. He and his colleagues drove mining vehicles into the desert to collect soil samples just a few weeks after the storm, and then returned again in 2016 and 2017 to track changes as the moisture dissipated.
The team found microbes — a mix of extremophile archaea, bacteria and fungi — that were tolerant of desiccation, salinity and UV radiation. The kinds of species were fairly consistent across sampling sites, which suggests there’s something of a native microbial community that can survive in this salty sand by going dormant between periods of moisture, says Schulze-Makuch.
Schulze-Makuch and his colleagues also found evidence for enzymes that are by-products of cellular metabolism. And traces of ATP, the molecule that cells use for energy, lingered inside cells. Those markers of life were the most bountiful at the first sampling time, and then declined as the soil dried out again.
Collectively, it’s evidence that microbes aren’t just dying and leaving their DNA behind in the Atacama — they’re laying low to live another day. That’s encouraging to Schulze-Makuch: He’s interested in the Atacama as a proxy for conditions on Mars.
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Armando Azua-Bustos, an astrobiologist at the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid who was not part of this study, agrees. “If we’re finding that, on Earth, truly dry places are still inhabited,” he says. “That opens the door to finding life elsewhere in the universe.”