Microbial Ecology

, Volume 61, Issue 3, pp 568–581 | Cite as

Hypolithic Cyanobacteria Supported Mainly by Fog in the Coastal Range of the Atacama Desert

  • Armando Azúa-Bustos
  • Carlos González-Silva
  • Rodrigo A. Mancilla
  • Loreto Salas
  • Benito Gómez-Silva
  • Christopher P. McKay
  • Rafael Vicuña
Environmental Microbiology


The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, with an arid core highly adverse to the development of hypolithic cyanobacteria. Previous work has shown that when rain levels fall below ~1 mm per year, colonization of suitable quartz stones falls to virtually zero. Here, we report that along the coast in these arid regions, complex associations of cyanobacteria, archaea, and heterotrophic bacteria inhabit the undersides of translucent quartz stones. Colonization rates in these areas, which receive virtually no rain but mainly fog, are significantly higher than those reported inland in the hyperarid zone at the same latitude. Here, hypolithic colonization rates can be up to 80%, with all quartz rocks over 20 g being colonized. This finding strongly suggests that hypolithic microbial communities thriving in the seaward face of the Coastal Range can survive with fog as the main regular source of moisture. A model is advanced where the development of the hypolithic communities under quartz stones relies on a positive feedback between fog availability and the higher thermal conductivity of the quartz rocks, which results in lower daytime temperatures at the quartz–soil interface microenvironment.


Photosynthetic Photon Flux Density Soil Interface Cyanobacterial Community Quartz Rock Quartz Stone 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This work was supported by the Millennium Institute of Fundamental and Applied Biology, MIFAB (Chile). We also thank Alejandro Munizaga and Ximena Verges for the technical support with microscopy methods.

Author Disclosure Statement

No competing financial interests exist.

Supplementary material

248_2010_9784_Fig1_ESM.jpg (122 kb)
Supplemental Figure 1

In situ temperature profiles under quartz stones and opaque rocks. A period of 9 days during winter time of 2008 is shown. -■- quartz stones, -◊- dark opaque stones. (JPG 121 KB)

248_2010_9784_MOESM1_ESM.tif (109 kb)
High resolution image file (TIF 109 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Armando Azúa-Bustos
    • 1
    • 4
  • Carlos González-Silva
    • 2
  • Rodrigo A. Mancilla
    • 1
  • Loreto Salas
    • 1
  • Benito Gómez-Silva
    • 5
  • Christopher P. McKay
    • 3
  • Rafael Vicuña
    • 1
    • 4
  1. 1.Departamento de Genética Molecular y Microbiología, Facultad de Ciencias BiológicasPontificia Universidad Católica de ChileSantiagoChile
  2. 2.Centro de investigación del Medio Ambiente (CENIMA)Universidad Arturo PratIquiqueChile
  3. 3.NASA-Ames Research CenterMoffett FieldUSA
  4. 4.Millennium Institute of Fundamental an Applied Biology, MIFABSantiagoChile
  5. 5.Departamento Biomédico, Facultad de Ciencias de la SaludUniversidad de AntofagastaAntofagastaChile

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