Researchers from the Center of Astrobiology of INTA-CSIC in Spain and the Catholic University of the North in Chile have discovered an ‘oasis’ of microorganisms living below the surface of the Atacama Desert, Chile.
Their paper, published in the journal Astrobiology, describes the discovery of a hypersaline subsurface microbial habitat associated with halite-, nitrate-, and perchlorate-containing salts lying at a depth of 2 m in the driest desert on Earth.
“We have named it a ‘microbial oasis’ because we found microorganisms developing in a habitat that was rich in halite (rock salt) and other highly hygroscopic compounds (anhydrite and perchlorate) that absorb water”, explained Dr. Victor Parro, a lead author on the study and a researcher at the Center of Astrobiology.
To conduct this investigation, the researchers used an instrument called SOLID (Signs of Life Detector), which was developed by the research team with the aim of using it for future missions on Mars.
The core of SOLID is a biochip called LDChip, which includes up to 450 antibodies to identify biological material, such as sugar, DNA and protein.
Using this technique, the researchers have confirmed the presence of underground archaea and bacteria in the desert. They also took samples from a depth of up to 5 m and took them to the laboratory, where not only were they able to photograph the microorganisms with the electron microscope, but also brought them into life when supplied with water.
“If there are similar microbes on Mars or remains in similar conditions to the ones we have found in Atacama, we could detect them with instruments like SOLID”, Dr. Parro concluded. “Saline deposits have been found on the red planet, therefore it is possible to think that there maybe hypersaline environments in its subsoil.”