Strange bacteria found on South American volcanoes

From the University of Colorado at Boulder, proof that life can inhabit just about anywhere.

CU-Boulder-led team finds microbes in extreme environment on South American volcanoes

A CU-Boulder-led team has discovered some rare, primitive microorganisms on high volcanoes in South America that may be fueled by drifting gases in the region rather than photosynthesis. Credit: University of Colorado

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder looking for organisms that eke out a living in some of the most inhospitable soils on Earth has found a hardy few.

A new DNA analysis of rocky soils in the Martian-like landscape on some volcanoes in South America has revealed a handful of bacteria, fungi and other rudimentary organisms called archaea, which seem to have a different way of converting energy than their cousins elsewhere in the world.

“We haven’t formally identified or characterized the species,” said Ryan Lynch, a CU-Boulder doctoral student involved in the study. “But these are very different than anything else that has been cultured. Genetically, they’re at least 5 percent different than anything else in the DNA database of 2.5 million sequences.”

Life gets little encouragement on the incredibly dry slopes of the tallest volcanoes in the Atacama region, where CU-Boulder Professor Steve Schmidt and his team collected soil samples. Much of the sparse snow that falls on the terrain sublimates back to the atmosphere soon after it hits the ground, and the soil is so depleted of nutrients that nitrogen levels in the scientists’ samples were below detection limits.

Ultraviolet radiation in the high-altitude environment can be twice as intense as in a low-elevation desert, said Schmidt of CU-Boulder’s ecology and evolutionary biology department. While the researchers were on site, temperatures dropped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit one night and spiked to 133 F the next day.

How the newfound organisms survive under such circumstances remains a mystery. Although Ryan, Schmidt and their colleagues looked for genes known to be involved in photosynthesis and peered into the cells using fluorescent techniques to look for chlorophyll, they couldn’t find evidence that the microbes were photosynthetic.

Instead, they think the microbes might slowly generate energy by means of chemical reactions that extract energy and carbon from wisps of gases such as carbon monoxide and dimethylsulfide that blow into the desolate mountain area. The process wouldn’t give the bugs a high-energy yield, Lynch said, but it could be enough as it adds up over time. A paper on the findings has been accepted by the Journal of Geophysical Research-Biogeosciences, published by the American Geophysical Union.

While normal soil has thousands of microbial species in just a gram of soil, and garden soils even more, remarkably few species have made their home in the barren Atacama mountain soil, the new research suggests. “To find a community dominated by less than 20 species is pretty amazing for a soil microbiologist,” Schmidt said.

He has studied sites in the Peruvian Andes where, four years after a glacier retreats, there are thriving, diverse microbe communities. But on these volcanoes on the Chile-Argentina border, which rise to altitudes of more than 19,685 feet and which have been ice-free for 48,000 years, the bacterial and fungal ecosystems have not undergone succession to more diverse communities. “It’s mostly due to the lack of water, we think,” he said. “Without water, you’re not going to develop a complex community.”

“Overall, there was a good bit lower diversity in the Atacama samples than you would find in most soils, including other mountainous mineral soils,” Lynch said. That makes the Atacama microbes very unusual, he added. They probably had to adapt to the extremely harsh environment, or may have evolved in different directions than similar organisms elsewhere due to long-term geographic isolation.

Growth on the mountain might be intermittent, Schmidt suggested, especially if soils only have water for a short time after snowfall. In those situations, there could be microbes that grow when it snows, then fall dormant, perhaps for years, before they grow again. High-elevation sites are great places to study simple microbial communities, ecosystems that haven’t evolved past the very basics of a few bacteria and fungi, Schmidt said.

“There are a lot of areas in the world that haven’t been studied from a microbial perspective, and this is one of the main ones,” he said. “We’re interested in discovering new forms of life, and describing what those organisms are doing, how they make a living.”

Schmidt’s lab, along with others, is studying how microorganisms travel from one site to another. One common method of microbe transport is through the air — they’re caught up in winds, sucked up into clouds, form rain droplets and then fall back to the ground somewhere else as precipitation.

But on mountains like Volcán Llullaillaco and Volcán Socompa, the high UV radiation and extreme temperatures make the landscape inhospitable to outside microbes. “This environment is so restrictive, most of those things that are raining down are killed immediately,” Schmidt said. “There’s a huge environmental filter here that’s keeping most of these things from growing.”

The next steps for the researchers are laboratory experiments using an incubator that can mimic the extreme temperature fluctuations to better understand how any organism can live in such an unfriendly environment. Studying the microbes and finding out how they can live at such an extreme can help set boundaries for life on Earth, Schmidt said, and tells scientists what life can stand. There’s a possibility that some of the extremophiles might utilize completely new forms of metabolism, converting energy in a novel way.

Schmidt also is working with astrobiologists to model what past conditions were like on Mars. With their rocky terrain, thin atmosphere and high radiation, the Atacama volcanoes are some of the most similar places on Earth to the Red Planet.

“If we know, on Earth, what the outer limits for life were, and they know what the paleoclimates on Mars were like, we may have a better idea of what could have lived there,” he said.


Other paper authors included Andrew King of Ecosystem Sciences, CSIRO Black Mountain in Acton, Australia; Mariá Farías of Laboratorio de Investigaciones Microbiologicas de Lagunas Andinas, Planto Piloto de Procesos Industriales Microbiologicas, CCT, CONICET in Tucuman, Argentina; Preston Sowell of Geomega, an environmental consulting firm in Boulder; and Christian Vitry of Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana in Salta, Argentina.

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June 10, 2012 11:47 pm

Life will exist anywhere it can , It will also exist anywhere it can`t , it just takes it a bit longer :o)

Kurt in Switzerland
June 10, 2012 11:57 pm

And on a related note, anthropologists from the University of San Francisco have discovered evidence of a small, but signicant group of individuals in a corner saloon in Washington, D. C., carrying out what could be described as rational, civil discourse (in one of the most caustic political environments on the planet). It should be noted, however, that these observations have yet to be corroborated by independent sources.
Kurt in Switzerland

June 11, 2012 12:07 am

“haven’t evolved past the very basics of a few bacteria and fungi”
How do they know that these species have not evolved ‘into’ these environments? Always so many assumptions used to tell their stories in these PRs!

George E. Smith;
June 11, 2012 12:13 am

Well it’s a bit of a stretch from a South American volcano to “anywhere”. I believe the SA volcano. Don’t believe the anywhere.
Other than the thin shell say +/- 20km about mean sea level on planet earth, we have found life precicely nowhere. That’s a far cry from anywhere.

June 11, 2012 12:25 am

It does seem a bit odd that they are fairly certain these are primitive and less evolved bacteria, yet there is no credible hypothesis to explain the origin of the very first “parent” cell/bacteria on which the evolution must be based.

June 11, 2012 1:09 am

The report is verbose and repetitious; it could have all been covered in about 4 paragraphs. ‘Nuff said.

John Marshall
June 11, 2012 2:11 am

It should come as no surprise that life will find a way to exist given all the other ‘impossible’ places on earth that have supported life’s tenuous grip.

June 11, 2012 3:23 am

Sooner or later we’ll have to rewrite Genesis:
In the beginning God made bacteria.
And the bacteria pooped a Universe into existence.
And it was good.

June 11, 2012 3:33 am

Clearly a fine candidate for a cartoon by Josh.
Imagine a close-up view of a gang of bacteria dudes looking up and pointing at the oversized eyeball in a giant magnifying glass from a pointy-head Scientist clad in white lab coat and protective gear. One bacteria dude says: “Who are you calling strange and un-evolved?”.

June 11, 2012 4:13 am

“Meanwhile, in other news, scientists have discovered a new form of parasitic bloodsuckers that live in academic circles and feed off of taxpayer-funded research grants. Scientists have named this new genus of parasites caelum cadens, as part of the family maleficus.

donald penman
June 11, 2012 4:47 am
I hope these work, I think microbial evolution is a very interesting subject.

donald penman
June 11, 2012 4:49 am
June 11, 2012 5:02 am

I griped about pedantry yesterday over something that I thought was clearly an imprecise number. That same pedant streak noticed “which rise to altitudes of more than 19,685 feet” as being oddly too precise. Turns out that if I convert to it to meters the only way I remember, I find 19685 * 12/39.37 = 6000.0. I might have translated the metric to “about 20,000 feet.”
More seriously, now the heck do you culture something like that? I doubt it swabbing some onto a agar surface on a petri dish would work well.

June 11, 2012 5:52 am

Protein-based life (and we don’t know any other) will exist wherever there is a chemical gradient of some sort and conditions are OK for proteins to remain whole and keep their shape in a water solution. The exact nature of the gradient does not seem to matter, it is only its strength that is important. For example, if there is a spot with a lot of elemental sulphur, while sulphates are rare, sooner or later there will be a form of life feeding on elemental sulphur, and vice versa. Same with iron, arsenic, and pretty much everything else. The exclamations including the word “anywhere” come from people who keep discovering life where we didn’t think it was possible. It was not too long ago that we were so convinced it could not exist inside the human stomach that it required bravery and personal sacrifice to prove otherwise.
Regarding “primitive” vs. “evolved”, there is really no connection between these notions. Life can and often does evolve towards the basics. We humans are just juvenile apes, who for some reason decided it was OK to mate and reproduce without going into the later stages of development. If we keep doing it for a long time, we are likely to lose the code that was once necessary to reach maturity, making us more “primitive” than the chimp. Will that mean “less evolved”?

June 11, 2012 6:22 am

It’s good to know someone is actually working in Boulder in place of the usual warmist free pass.

June 11, 2012 6:50 am

Literally: “Global Warming Bacteria!” 🙂

June 11, 2012 7:03 am

To Rick Werme:
Now you know. 🙂

June 11, 2012 7:23 am

Did they wear white suits? Or did they pollute the pristine environment with invasive microbes?

June 11, 2012 10:00 am

A variety of methods of chemosynthesis are known, having been discovered in cave, hot springs, underwater volcanic vents, etc. It is arguable that these preceded photosynthesis. Google “extremophiles”…

Logan in AZ
June 11, 2012 12:22 pm

The wiki article on panspermia has a number of comments on the survival of organisms under extreme conditions. One can speculate that such organisms drifted in from space.
There is also a website on panspermia —
which has essays on a variety of controversial concepts.

Steve C
June 11, 2012 2:37 pm

Wow, life is mindblowing.
Broiling undersea volcanic vents? – Check.
Buried in ice? – Check.
Floating about in clouds? – Check.
And now, bathed in UV?
The question is, where does life not exist!

June 11, 2012 6:38 pm

Blade says:
June 11, 2012 at 3:33 am
Clearly a fine candidate for a cartoon by Josh.
Imagine a close-up view of a gang of bacteria dudes looking up and pointing at the oversized eyeball in a giant magnifying glass from a pointy-head Scientist clad in white lab coat and protective gear. One bacteria dude says: “Who are you calling strange and un-evolved?”.
🙂 🙂 🙂
Thank you – made my day!
It seems there’s almost nothing that some bacterium, fungus, lichen etc, somewhere, won’t eat. The surface and nearby regions of Earth is just one giant smorgasbord.

George E. Smith;
June 11, 2012 10:00 pm

“””””……Steve C says:
June 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm
Wow, life is mindblowing.
Broiling undersea volcanic vents? – Check.
Buried in ice? – Check.
Floating about in clouds? – Check.
And now, bathed in UV?
The question is, where does life not exist!…..”””””
I already told you; ANYWHERE, outside of a thin shell +/- 20 km about mean sea level on planet earth.

Lady Life Grows
June 11, 2012 11:35 pm

Long carbon chains were found in the spectra of Red stars about 10 or 15 years ago. So the speculation arises that life may have arisen at 2000 Kelvin, under conditions very different than the land surface of Earth.
The most primitive forms known occur at deep-sea vents–but did they actually arise there? Or did they bubble up from below?

Ian Middleton
June 12, 2012 12:50 am

Definately an alien species waiting for the mothership to take them back home.

George E. Smith;
June 12, 2012 2:38 am

It is claimed that life on earth began about 4.5 billion years ago; I’ll believe wikileaks number on that; good as any other.
So far as we know (for sure), that has NEVER occurred again on earth. In other words; once life began on earth, ti stayed, and evolved, and took up residence in almost any nook and cranny on earth surface, that was unoccupied. It also ousted other critters that might have been cohabitating there; but it never ceased to exist on earth, and then start all over again.
So finding bugs or buggers on the rocky slopes of a mountain that is also volcanioc, doesn’t mean any life STARTED there; it just moved in as on the wings of a dove !
So no basis for believing life began also ANYWHERE else. And no I don’t believe it was created by that which man created.

June 12, 2012 1:53 pm

“While the researchers were on site, temperatures dropped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit one night and spiked to 133 F the next day.”
Wow, three miles high and it’s hotter than Death Valley or the Libyan Desert (keep in mind they were only on site for a few days, not long enough for a century record). Sounds like Global Warming — I wonder how it was measured. –AGF

June 12, 2012 1:59 pm

Ric Werme says:
June 11, 2012 at 5:02 am
Yeah, 98.6F is a nice round 37C. –AGF

Eric Gisin
June 12, 2012 8:28 pm

Photosynthesis based on UV would be simpler, and might have evolved before there was an ozone layer. There are other kinds of photosynthesis besides cyanobacteria.

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