A Microbial Saga: How to Study an Unexpected Hot Spot of Microbial Biodiversity from Scratch?
Wendell Minckley had just graduated from college in 1957, and his love was aquatic environments and wildlife management. After his first fortuitous trip to Cuatro Cienegas Basin (CCB) in 1958, his life changed and devoted his career to understand this amazing oasis. In 1997 Minckley, by then a well-established professor at Arizona State University, brought along a new colleague, Jim Elser, a limnologist interested in the basic stoichiometric composition of life. Jim was fascinated by the abundance of stromatolites and microbial mats as the base of the aquatic food web, just as in the early Cambrian sea. What made CCB so special was its extremely low phosphorus and the unbalanced stoichiometry; those were the ancient conditions of the sea in the Precambrian. Jim got the Astrobiology Institute of NASA interested, but they needed Mexican scientists involved as well as experts in microbiology and evolution. Valeria Souza and Luis Eguiarte visited the CCB in 1999, and this chapter is about the fascination that they felt at the mysteries behind the enormous microbial biodiversity in the blue-eye ponds (locally called pozas). However, this lost world that had survived eons did not give its secrets lightly, and the hardships to study it are many, so they needed more and more colleagues to join into the task. In the last decade, the now large scientific team has been trying to understand why there are so many species in a place without food, and trying to describe as much as possible and as fast as possible. They all feel this sense of urgency since they are working against the implacable clock of ecosystem degradation. Paradise was disappearing fast given the unsustainable use of water from the deep aquifer to irrigate thirsty alfalfa cultivars in the desert. The decision to save CCB and its amazing biota required to transform a sleepy rural society by translating science to the public and more importantly to give scientific tools to the kids of the owners of the land. Bright-eyed children became conscious about the ecosystem through art, and teenagers are taking actions by discovering that they are the stewards of the biodiversity they are describing in the lab of their high school using molecular tools. There is a revolution occurring in this oasis: science is the tool; kids are the drivers.
This chapter was written during a sabbatical leave of VS in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior University of Minnesota in Dr. Michael Travisano’s laboratory and of LEE in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Minnesota in Dr. Peter Tiffin’s laboratory, both supported by the program PASPA-DGAPA, UNAM.
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