Microbial Communities of High-Elevation Fumaroles, Penitentes, and Dry Tephra “Soils” of the Puna de Atacama Volcanic Zone
The aim of this study was to understand the spatial distribution of microbial communities (18S and 16S rRNA genes) across one of the harshest terrestrial landscapes on Earth. We carried out Illumina sequencing using samples from two expeditions to the high slopes (up to 6050 m.a.s.l.) of Volcán Socompa and Llullaillaco to describe the microbial communities associated with the extremely dry tephra compared to areas that receive water from fumaroles and ice fields made up of nieves penitentes. There were strong spatial patterns relative to these landscape features with the most diverse (alpha diversity) communities being associated with fumaroles. Penitentes did not significantly increase alpha diversity compared to dry tephra at the same elevation (5825 m.a.s.l.) on Volcán Socompa, but the structure of the 18S community (beta diversity) was significantly affected by the presence of penitentes on both Socompa and Llullaillaco. In addition, the 18S community was significantly different in tephra wetted by penitentes versus dry tephra sites across many elevations on Llullaillaco. Traditional phototrophs (algae and cyanobacteria) were abundant in wetter tephra associated with fumaroles, and algae (but not cyanobacteria) were common in tephra associated with penitentes. Dry tephra had neither algae nor cyanobacteria but did host potential phototrophs in the Rhodospirillales on Volcán Llullaillaco, but not on Socompa. These results provide new insights into the distribution of microbes across one of the most extreme terrestrial environments on Earth and provide the first ever glimpse of life associated with nieves penitentes, spire-shaped ice structures that are widespread across the mostly unexplored high-elevation Andean Central Volcanic Zone.
KeywordsWater availability Nieves penitentes Naganishia Snow algae Astrobiology Altiplano
We thank CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal) for the permission to collect the samples in Llullaillaco National Park in Chile; E. Gendron, R. Lynch, and A.J. King for the assistance in the lab; and P. Sowell, C. Vitry, P. Maciel, G. Zimmerman, T. Bowen, G. Jesperson, and T. Harris for the help in the field. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1258160), a grant from the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-14-1-0006), and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.
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