Scientists discover an oasis of life hidden beneath the world's driest desert

Potsdam, Germany — One of the most lifeless places on Earth is actually an underground biosphere teeming with microscopic life! Researchers have discovered this amazing oasis under the Atacama Desert in Chile. The results not only change our view of life on Earth, but may prove that there is still life under the soil of dead alien worlds like Mars!

Despite being the driest desert on Earth, with some areas going decades or even centuries without a drop of rain, researchers from Germany have discovered hardy communities of microorganisms that have managed to form habitats deep beneath the desert floor. Here, completely isolated from the surface world, microscopic life finds a way to survive against all odds.

Study author Dirk Wagner and a team from the German Research Center for Geosciences GFZ explain that they have discovered signs of viable microbial ecosystems 13 feet underground. This remarkable discovery changes our understanding of desert biodiversity, demonstrating that life can persist even in the most extreme subterranean environments on Earth.

To glimpse this underground world, researchers have created an innovative DNA extraction technique to recover genetic material exclusively from cells with intact membranes, a telltale sign of the presence of living or dormant organisms. Traditional methods can easily pick up dead cell debris as well, clouding the water.

The top of the soil sample. (Photography: Dirk Wagner, GFZ Potsdam)

Their findings were published in the journal PNAS AssociationIt revealed two distinct microbial communities inhabiting different subsurface layers. In the upper metres, microbes such as salt-loving bacteria cling to existence in hypersaline sediments that were once part of an ephemeral lake, or playa. However, beneath that harsh zone, there is an unexpected return to life in older, deeper alluvial fan deposits.

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According to Wagner, these deep societies may have colonized this lower layer more than three million years ago, then became buried and essentially isolated from the surface world above. In such extreme isolation and without any energy from the sun, these underground microbes have had to develop amazingly creative survival strategies.

Incredibly, the researchers found that some mineral deposits – particularly gypsum crystals – appear to play a vital role in maintaining this underground oasis. By chemically converting gypsum into the mineral anhydrite, some microbial species can extract and metabolize precious water molecules trapped within the gypsum structure, giving it enough moisture to continue life.

Even more surprising is that many of the microbes identified rely on a mysterious type of chemical metabolism that allows them to produce their food from atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen rather than relying on sunlight or organic matter flowing from surface ecosystems above. .

The study authors add that this discovery under the Atacama changes the way we look at desert ecosystems, including those on other planets! Billions of years ago, Mars likely hosted environmental conditions similar to the Atacama, when liquid water was still flowing on its surface. If microbial communities on our planet can create isolated, habitable pockets underground, perhaps similar subsurface refuges capable of sustaining dormant or even active life on Mars await human explorers on the Red Planet.

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