Earth’s highest microbial life found around volcanic vents in Atacama Desert

June 20th, 2009 - 12:31 pm ICT by ANI  

National Geographic Washington, June 20 (ANI): A team of scientists has found that the highest microbial life on Earth appears to be in South America, around vents near the rim of the Socompa volcano, which sits on the border between Argentina and Chile in the Atacama Desert.

The newfound creatures, at a height of almost 19,850 feet (6,050 meters) above sea level, are the highest-altitude microbial communities known, Steve Schmidt, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, US, told National Geographic News.

Schmidt and his team usually study the places where glaciers have retreated, to discover which microbes move in first to colonize the newly exposed soil.

Their work has implications for climate change and the search for life on other planets-on Mars, for example, the edges of ice fields are among the more likely places to search for microbial life.

But then, he said, “people in my lab became intrigued: Is there an altitudinal limit to life?”

Like other “extreme” microbes living on volcanoes deep underwater, the new microbes were found around vents near the rim of the Socompa volcano.

“Most of the landscape that high up is barren,” said Schmidt.

But at the vents, steady emissions of water, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane support 30-foot-wide (9-meter-wide) oases of moss and microbial communities.

“There’s as much diversity of life as in garden soil,” Schmidt said of the newly discovered zones. “Next to it, there’s nothing,” he added.

The microbes are likely not active all the time, as soil temperatures may fluctuate in a single day from zero to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.7 to 65.5 degrees Celsius). (ANI)

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