Earths highest known microbial ecosystems being fueled by volcanic gases

March 4th, 2009 - 3:20 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, March 4 (ANI): A new study has shown that the emission of water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane from small volcanic vents near the rim of the 19,850-foot-high Socompa volcano in the Andes Mountains, is helping to sustain complex microbial ecosystems.

The study, by a research team at the University of Colorado at Boulder, US, shows that gases rising from deep within the Earth are fueling the worlds highest-known microbial ecosystems.

CU-Boulder Professor Steve Schmidt has likened the physical environment of the Socompa volcano summit, including the thin atmosphere, intense ultraviolet radiation and harsh climate, to the physical characteristics of Mars, where the hunt for microbial life is under way by NASA.

The microbial communities atop Socompa, which straddles Argentina and Chile high in the Atacama Desert, are in a more extreme environment and not as well understood as microbes living in hydrothermal vents in deep oceans, he said.

The Socompa microbial communities are located adjacent to several patches of green, carpet-like plant communities, primarily mosses and liverworts, discovered in the 1980s by Stephan Halloy of Conservation International in La Paz, Bolivia, a co-author on the new CU-Boulder study.

These sites are unique little oases in the vast, barren landscape of the Atacama Desert and are supported by gases from deep within the Earth, said Schmidt, a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department, University of Colorado.

Scientists just havent been looking for microorganisms at these elevations, and when we did, we discovered some strange types found nowhere else on Earth, he added.

The team used a sophisticated technique that involves extracting DNA from the soil to pinpoint new groups of microbes, using polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to amplify and identify them, providing a snapshot of the microbial diversity on Socompa.

The new research is based on an ongoing analysis of soil samples collected during an expedition to Socompa several years ago.

The research team also reported a new variety of microscopic mite in the bacterial colonies near Socompas rim, which appears to be the highest elevation that mites have ever been recorded on Earth, Schmidt said.

According to Elizabeth Costello, a research associate in CU-Boulders chemistry and biochemistry department, small amounts of sunlight, water, methane and CO2 work in concert in the barren soils to fuel microbial life near the small volcanic vents, or fumaroles.

Such conditions relieve the stress on the high-elevation, arid soils enough to allow extreme life to get a toehold, Costello said.

Its as if these bacterial communities are living in tiny, volcanic greenhouses, she added. (ANI)

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