In the Driest Place in The World, There Is Also Life

They find bacteria, fungi and viruses in areas of the Atacama Desert where it has not rained in years.

In March 2015, triggered by the climatic phenomenon of El Niño, rain fell in the Atacama Desert (Chile) as it had not done in 40 years. It was a few millimeters that did not take the desert away from the category of the driest place on the planet (apart from Antarctica). But they served a group of scientists to confirm the existence of autochthonous microorganisms under the surface. They found bacteria, fungi and viruses. Researchers think that if life resurfaces in a place as extreme as the Atacama, why is it not going to be apparent on Mars?

"We had already decided the mission, taking samples from the wettest areas [on the Pacific coast] to the aridest, but we had the extraordinary luck that it rained," says the microbiologist at the Center for Astrobiology (CAB) and co-author of the study, Víctor Parro. Researchers from this center, dependent on both the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA) and the CSIC, together with Chilean experts in extremophile organisms and scientists from other institutions, took advantage of the source of life that is always water to study what was in the Atacama.

The Chilean desert, of more than 100,000 km2, receives average annual precipitation of 20 mm of water, which causes a spectacular flowering in its margins. But there are areas where rain appears from decade to decade. Ultraviolet radiation is also very high. In addition to this, over millions of years, the desiccation and atmosphere have caused the earth to almost sweat salt. Moreover, although there is a lot of minerals, there is hardly any organic matter that microorganisms can live on.

Researchers Have Found Evidence of The Existence of Phages, Bacteria and Viruses.

"But life takes advantage of the smallest event of humidity to regenerate itself", says Parro. In effect, researchers identified the presence of bacteria, archaea and fungi. They even found bacteriophages, bacteria viruses. Although clues of bacterial activity had been found in the past in the hypercarid soils of the Atacama, it was not known if these dead cells were native or had been brought there by the wind, as has been proven on other occasions and latitudes. "The challenge was to see them metabolically active there," adds the CAB astrobiologist.