Life at extreme elevations on Atacama volcanoes: the closest thing to Mars on Earth?

Abstract

Here we describe recent breakthroughs in our understanding of microbial life in dry volcanic tephra (“soil”) that covers much of the surface area of the highest elevation volcanoes on Earth. Dry tephra above 6000 m.a.s.l. is perhaps the best Earth analog for the surface of Mars because these “soils” are acidic, extremely oligotrophic, exposed to a thin atmosphere, high UV fluxes, and extreme temperature fluctuations across the freezing point. The simple microbial communities found in these extreme sites have among the lowest alpha diversity of any known earthly ecosystem and contain bacteria and eukaryotes that are uniquely adapted to these extreme conditions. The most abundant eukaryotic organism across the highest elevation sites is a Naganishia species that is metabolically versatile, can withstand high levels of UV radiation and can grow at sub-zero temperatures, and during extreme diurnal freeze–thaw cycles (e.g. − 10 to + 30 °C). The most abundant bacterial phylotype at the highest dry sites sampled (6330 m.a.s.l. on Volcán Llullaillaco) belongs to the enigmatic B12-WMSP1 clade which is related to the Ktedonobacter/Thermosporothrix clade that includes versatile organisms with the largest known bacterial genomes. Close relatives of B12-WMSP1 are also found in fumarolic soils on Volcán Socompa and in oligotrophic, fumarolic caves on Mt. Erebus in Antarctica. In contrast to the extremely low diversity of dry tephra, fumaroles found at over 6000 m.a.s.l. on Volcán Socompa support very diverse microbial communities with alpha diversity levels rivalling those of low elevation temperate soils. Overall, the high-elevation biome of the Atacama region provides perhaps the best “natural experiment” in which to study microbial life in both its most extreme setting (dry tephra) and in one of its least extreme settings (fumarolic soils).

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Acknowledgements

We thank S.R.P. Halloy, P. Aráns, E.K. Costello, S.C. Reed, A. Seimon, G. Jesperson, T. Harris, M.E. Farias, C. Dorador, C. Vitry, P. Maciel, M. Perez, G. Zimmerman, and T. Bowen for advice and help in the field, and D.R. Bowling for help with measuring CO2.

Funding

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation of the U.S.A. (Grant Numbers DEB-1258160 and PLR-1443578).

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Correspondence to S. K. Schmidt.

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Schmidt, S.K., Gendron, E.M.S., Vincent, K. et al. Life at extreme elevations on Atacama volcanoes: the closest thing to Mars on Earth?. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 111, 1389–1401 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10482-018-1066-0

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Keywords

  • Endolithic microbes
  • Acidic soils
  • Fumaroles
  • B12-WMSP1
  • Spartobacteria
  • Hypoliths