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Earth's Own Mars, the Atacama Desert Yields Amazing Extremophile Microbes

timothy posted about 2 years ago | from the but-how-do-they-taste? dept.

Earth 63

A University of Colorado-Boulder team has uncovered extremophile microbes in the rocky, high-altitude Atacama desert on the Chile-Argentina border "which seem to have a different way of converting energy than their cousins elsewhere in the world." According to the researchers, "[T]hese 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." It's an exciting frontier for biologists in part because of the recurring interest in the possibility that life has existed (or does exist) on Mars; the dry, volcanic Atacama is often compared to the Martian surface.

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63 comments

BS comparison (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278259)

the dry, volcanic Atacama is often compared to the Martian surface.

Except that it has an ozone layer protecting it, and the surface isn't covered by free radicals ready to destroy anything organic.

There is nowhere on Earth that is comparable to the surface of Mars. There is no life on the surface of Mars. There might be life under the surface, but that is a completely different comparison.

Re:BS comparison (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278357)

So pack some sunscreen and antioxidants. Big whoop.

Re:BS comparison (1)

viperidaenz (2515578) | about 2 years ago | (#40278361)

Don't forget about the magnetosphere protecting us from the harmful radiation coming from the Sun.

Re:BS comparison (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278435)

Don't forget about the magnetosphere protecting us from the harmful radiation coming from the Sun.

Don't forget about the niggers.

Re:BS comparison (1)

axlr8or (889713) | about 2 years ago | (#40279275)

And the little guy goes for a field goal attempt. It's 50 yards a little bit of a stretch.. And we have the punt. It's NO GOOD!! Awh. Silly Fellah. You need longer legs.

Re:BS comparison (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40279363)

And don't forget about the X-Men protecting us from the Magnetosphere.

Re:BS comparison (5, Interesting)

kermidge (2221646) | about 2 years ago | (#40278523)

Seems to me the operant words from the article were the following:

"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 [Steve Schmidt] said."

I may easily have missed it in the article but I saw no direct comparisons made apart from "rocky soils in the Martian-like landscape" which refers to appearance, and by my lights "most similar" does not mean "the same."

What interested me was the five percent or more difference of these various critters from current DNA database. What fascinates me is that Life has of late been found in places we'd thought it to be least likely to impossible.

Re:BS comparison (5, Informative)

joocemann (1273720) | about 2 years ago | (#40278775)

I used to do extremophile research. I can chip in a little knowledge about microbial research to neutralize some of this sensationalism

Ribosomal RNA sequences are often the basis for speciation in biology. And while the human and ape species may be less than 1 percent difference, they are described to be different species. The full genomic DNA seqs may have more difference.
With microbes, the rRNA threshold for a different species is 13%. There are species of E.coli that have 50% less genomic DNA (meaning beyond 50% different since they already are missing half), that are called E.coli because the rRNA is not varied enough (less than 13% different).

My point is that in the world of microbes, and furthermore extremophiles, a 5% difference is not much. That may be a sensational news point. I persnally genetically identified several organisms from the Boiling Springs Lake Microbial Observatory (65-95 deg C, pH 1.7) that were 11-12.7% different than previously described species....

Re:BS comparison (2)

ColdWetDog (752185) | about 2 years ago | (#40278921)

Thanks for that. Just off the top of my head a "5% bulk DNA sequence difference" doesn't mean a whole lot. I'm surprised that they're pushing stuff with this little actual hard data.

Reminds me of the last time NASA went looking for alien DNA [slashdot.org].

I think Slashdot needs to make a policy not to accept anything from anyone's PR department. Especially NASA and any US University.

Re:BS comparison (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40300439)

Why not? Look at what we've all learned in just ten minutes.

rRNA + DNA matters more than just DNA (I probably sound like an idiot there, but I am not an extremophile researcher)
a 5% difference in DNA doesn't matter much
a 13% rRNA difference is needed to separate microbial species.
Microbes with 11% to 12% have been found elsewhere with no great fanfare.

Wow! This is a lot of information, and it's just what the internet is supposed to be - a forum for information.

Go Slashdot!

Re:BS comparison (1)

kermidge (2221646) | about 2 years ago | (#40280213)

Thanks for the clarification and background.

"Used to..." What happened?

Re:BS comparison (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40280645)

He took an arrow to the knee obviously...

Re:BS comparison (1)

joocemann (1273720) | about 2 years ago | (#40284567)

I do stemcell research for a major lab. mRNA based cell reprogramming.

Re:BS comparison (1)

kermidge (2221646) | about 2 years ago | (#40292617)

Thank you. Neat stuff, hope it's going well for you. Now, if'n somebody'd just fix them pesky telomeres....

Re:BS comparison (1)

joocemann (1273720) | about 2 years ago | (#40304123)

I reprogram cells to become other cell types. Its a lot of fun.

The telomere issue is underway since 2 years ago. I'd love to live forever, but imagine a world where the new cannot own the world.... where the old persist and never let go of their influence. For example, today's politics largely votes the interests of 50-60 year olds. 30 years ago, the same people voted, but the politics followed their parents who were 50-60 at the time. Since people still die, I expect in 20-30 years for cannabis to be legal (something our generation at 30 already fully wants), for medicine to be socialized, and for green energy to be not a priority, but an expectation. But what if people don't die? When will the new gen get to own it? What happenes to generations and the balance that is established through expected life cycles..... some would argue we *need* to die to keep things balanced.

Re:BS comparison (1)

kermidge (2221646) | about 2 years ago | (#40305843)

I'm glad you've found interesting work that you enjoy - that's rare enough at any time.

Yeah, the probs attendant longevity... I had the stray thought mid-Seventies that long lives or no, just given population growth, the notion of private ownership of land, for instance, would come into question. This alone, of all the possible disruptions of having a bunch of people living for, say, centuries, acts like a panic/rage button for lots of people, self included. (I've long yearned for a piece of land to build upon and stash my stuff and sit on porch. Well, all the stuff is pretty much gone - the only old thing I've left is a beret from '69. Yet I'd still like a piece of land. The internal conflict is pesky, but not pressing.)

I like that you brought up life cycles; we've been raised on, and taught via history of, the "natural order of things." So what happens when that 'natural order' is grossly modified in a major respect?

For it to happen and happen well, I think that the ways we organize ourselves as, and interact in, a society will need some big changes. Economics and politics will have to reflect tech reality, else we continue as fodder through the dinosaur's gullet. I think it's not just possible but desirable if done with a bit of care. Else all the dark sci-fi examinations of all this gene/nano stuff will happen, and it won't be good, at least for a long while. On the plus side, tho, with long healthy life the market for spare parts will wither.

Re:BS comparison (1)

joocemann (1273720) | about 2 years ago | (#40316833)

Since you're on Slashdot I assume you might be into Linux.

As of late, Linus Torvalds and my Boss just shared a prize together!
http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iQ1KdxYp6hhmkeOKwcripY54iC-A?docId=CNG.a1b878f71ac27feae178698ffd633dd4.291 [google.com]

I thought about making a Slashdot thread suggestion... but then I realized I don't care to come up with some savvy abstract and just sent you the link right here.... haha.

Anyway, rockon.

Re:BS comparison (1)

kermidge (2221646) | about 2 years ago | (#40319671)

Good link to succinct article, thanks. Interesting boss.

Yah, been messing about in a consumerish way with Linux since '03; main OS for almost four years. Cheers.

Re:BS comparison (1)

TWToxicity (1991018) | about 2 years ago | (#40288021)

Why is the threshold for a different species different for microbes?

Re:BS comparison (1)

joocemann (1273720) | about 2 years ago | (#40292121)

The basis for speciation is quite complex, still theoretical, and always under debate.

What we are talking about is percentages of variance in the ribosomal subunit called "16S" rRNA sequence. In eukaryotes its 18S.

I'm on. Phone typing this, so I just realized how annoying it will be to spell out the scientific history.... so I will just be frank.

The truth is that species in all cases are a man made idea. The genetic variance among organisms on earth is large, even among same 'species', especially considering new findings in epigenetics. Some call the capacity to reproduce "same species", though bacteria don't reproduce sexually... strangely, some have sex-like interactions and share genetic materials.

The history in microbial species being so widely included was probably from the phenotypic analysis whereby people may have derived larger genetic variance among microbes that looked, acted, lived, etc the same as each other.

What has been clearly shown in science, but has not become the mainstay, yet, is that every organism is quite unique and that there are far more differences we can now see despite the traditiona elements showing "sameness".

Regarding humans, once DNA and genetics were somewhat understood, it was hypothesized that at leasr a million different genes should exist to give us the dynamic expression complexity to make human life. But when the genes were identified, it was more like 30k.... how can that be? But the "million" gene idea was derived from a callous assumption not recognizing the capacity of a single gene to have variable impact at different levels of expression..... and we now know this to be absolutely true.... the "epigenetics" or "above/beyond the genes" controls in the cells are very much involved in the control of each expressed gene.... microRNA, RNAi, CpG methylation, acetyl/methyl transferase activity, etc.... they all can modify how much of a gene is expressed.... this means that 20k genes, each having their own variability, and then variable interactions with other genes, can give rise to thecomplexity of the human.

We still know less than we know.

Each human has its own custom stock of bacteria living in their gut. They are different enough to actually provide microbial fingerprints for forensic scientists.... we can't literally set the threshold so low that your E.coli are called something diff than mine.... yet yours are more different from mine than you are from an ape.... probaly...

Re:BS comparison (5, Insightful)

MobileTatsu-NJG (946591) | about 2 years ago | (#40278673)

Not to mention that they come from a life-rich planet that has given this area a multitude of different combinations to try before any became sustainable. Life on Earth can adapt to all sorts of hostile environments, but that doesn't mean that it can originate from them.

Re:BS comparison (1)

viperidaenz (2515578) | about 2 years ago | (#40279051)

Its quite possible life on earth originated in some of the most hostile places known - volcanic vents on the ocean floor - where it still thrives in extreme pressures and all kinds of temperatures

Re:BS comparison (1)

Shavano (2541114) | about 2 years ago | (#40278837)

And the atmosphere has a completely different composition and density and it's much warmer and it does in fact get precipitation from time to time and large animals such as humans can survive there for extended periods. In other words, aside from practically everything important, it's a lot like Mars.

Actually, we don't KNOW that there's no life on Mars. We just don't know that there is. But we do know of no species (yet) that could survive there. If we find something that could survive there, it'll probably be somewhere that's dry and cold, by Earth standards.

It would be an interesting experiment to take some specimens of the hardiest life forms we can find and subject them to conditions that really are just like the Martian surface and see if there are any that can survive and reproduce.

Re:BS comparison (3, Informative)

TapeCutter (624760) | about 2 years ago | (#40278953)

They have done some experiments on the space station, some kind of lichen was able to survive outside the ship for over a year.

Re:BS comparison (1)

sFurbo (1361249) | about 2 years ago | (#40280873)

For values of "survive" that does not cover metabolism or reproduction. It might be possible to bring it back to life afterwards, but it wouldn't be alive if those conditions was all it ever experienced, which is more or less the case for the martian surface.

Re:BS comparison (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | about 2 years ago | (#40283333)

Don't know the details of the experiment. I agree the surface of Mars is most likely sterile, but there are some strong hints that microbial life may be just below the surface. I'd also love to find out exactly what those red stains are on Europa's surface?

Re:BS comparison (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40293359)

They have done some experiments on the space station, some kind of lichen was able to survive outside the ship for over a year.

So now we have lichen stains on ISS solar panels' surfaces?

Re:BS comparison (1)

ridgecritter (934252) | about 2 years ago | (#40279595)

IIRC, there have been experiments at JPL in which bacteria were subjected to ever more Martian-like conditions, and that if the environmental change was slow enough, some bacterial successfully adapted. My brief search didn't turn up those experiments. However...

During the assembly of the Phoenix spacecraft (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(spacecraft)) cultures taken from the clean room in which the spacecraft was assembled and tested noted a shift in the organisms cultured towards those capable of surviving UVC radiation and hydrogen peroxide exposure. The shift towards these extremophiles is notable because Mars has UVC radiation at its surface, and plenty of peroxide species in its soil. The authors of this study speculate that the shift to extremophiles in the clean room was brought about by spacecraft cleaning procedures. Study: "Recurrent Isolation of Extremotolerant Bacteria from the Clean Room Where Phoenix Spacecraft Components Were Assembled", ASTROBIOLOGY
Volume 10, Number 3, 2010, DOI: 10.1089/ast.2009.0396

Abstract: The microbial burden of the Phoenix spacecraft assembly environment was assessed in a systematic manner via several cultivation-based techniques and a suite of NASA-certified, cultivation-independent biomolecule-based detection assays. Extremotolerant bacteria that could potentially survive conditions experienced en route to Mars or on the planet’s surface were isolated with a series of cultivation-based assays that promoted the growth of a variety of organisms, including spore formers, mesophilic heterotrophs, anaerobes, thermophiles, psy- chrophiles, alkaliphiles, and bacteria resistant to UVC radiation and hydrogen peroxide exposure. Samples were collected from the clean room where Phoenix was housed at three different time points, before (1P), during (2P), and after (3P) Phoenix’s presence at the facility. There was a reduction in microbial burden of most bacterial groups, including spore formers, in samples 2P and 3P. Analysis of 262 isolates from the facility demonstrated that there was also a shift in predominant cultivable bacterial populations accompanied by a reduction in diversity during 2P and 3P. It is suggested that this shift was a result of increased cleaning when Phoenix was present in the assembly facility and that certain species, such as Acinetobacter johnsonii and Brevundimonas diminuta, may be better adapted to environmental conditions found during 2P and 3P. In addition, problematic bacteria resistant to multiple extreme conditions, such as Bacillus pumilus, were able to survive these periods of increased cleaning. Key Words: Phoenix—Extremotolerant—Clean room—Spacecraft assembly facility. Astro- biology 10, 325–335.

Unpublished? (1)

Shavano (2541114) | about 2 years ago | (#40279817)

Given the level of interest at NASA and other space-exploration-related scientific organizations and institutes, I strongly suspect that the experiment I proposed has been done, but the report on the experiment remains unpublished -- possibly because it came up with the negative result -- no survivors. Publication bias being what it is, NASA and universities and institutes could have tons of unpublished data on this subject. The first data we're likely to hear about is when somebody DOES get a microorganism to reproduce in Mars-like or worse conditions.

Extremophiles... (-1, Offtopic)

ToiletBomber (2269914) | about 2 years ago | (#40278325)

...living where ever it takes to indulge their pedophillia

Re:Extremophiles... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278337)

You mean they love walking?

Re:Extremophiles... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278349)

They love walking in philadelphia

Didn't we hear about this a year ago? (1)

sandytaru (1158959) | about 2 years ago | (#40278381)

The "arsenic based bacteria" which were supposed to revolutionize the way we viewed biology didn't even turn out to be a hoax, but bad science. Although, after RTFA, it looks as if these scientists are being a bit more cautious before making outrageous declarations.

Re:Didn't we hear about this a year ago? (4, Informative)

the gnat (153162) | about 2 years ago | (#40278627)

The "arsenic based bacteria" which were supposed to revolutionize the way we viewed biology didn't even turn out to be a hoax, but bad science. Although, after RTFA, it looks as if these scientists are being a bit more cautious before making outrageous declarations.

Biologists are finding fascinating new microorganisms in harsh environments all the time - this is mostly very good science, but nothing revolutionary or remotely controversial. The microbes in TFA are interesting because there isn't an obvious energy source available (since they're non-photosynthetic). This means that they may have evolved some unique metabolic strategy. But there is no inherent reason why these microbes can't or shouldn't exist; they're just something we haven't seen before.

The arsenic bacteria article was immediately controversial because for the claims of the authors were true, it would directly conflict with some very basic chemical phenomena, and didn't make sense in light of everything else we know about cellular biochemistry. (The mere existence of microbes in such high levels of arsenic is intrinsically interesting, since they would have had to evolve tolerance for what is effectively a poison, but again hardly revolutionary.) It was doubly controversial because it didn't do a very good job experimentally supporting the primary claim, that the bacteria preferred arsenate to phosphate in nucleic acid backbones. If you're going to put forward such an extreme hypothesis, you need to really nail the evidence 100%. The hand-waving science-by-press-release was an added slap in the face. Every scientist (especially the great ones) loves a bit of PR now and again - that's why universities issue press releases like TFA - but you have to know your limits.

Re:Didn't we hear about this a year ago? (1)

infinitelink (963279) | about 2 years ago | (#40280817)

Wanted to add that there are bacteria (and micro-organisms, generally) found ALL THE TIME whose metabolism we don't understand: most bacteria can't be cultured in a lab because of this, and for purposes like deriving drugs produced by them (and frankly just learning about them) it's a real problem, and why species that can host DNA from other bacteria are so important (i.e. "penicillin-derived" drugs often means "penicillin were used to act upon foreign DNA and make the antibiotic of another kind of micro-organism"). That the metabolisms of bacteria (and micro-organisms, generally) are extremely diverse and, sadly, largely unknown to us is no secret among biologists. It's one of those scientific frontiers still unpenetrated enough to have space for exploration and discovery!!!

Movie about the Atacama Desert (1)

timeOday (582209) | about 2 years ago | (#40278527)

There was a well-reviewed movie about the Atacama Desert last year called Nostalgia for the Light [imdb.com], which touches on both the science and local politics of the area.

Re:Movie about the Atacama Desert (1)

arth1 (260657) | about 2 years ago | (#40279627)

There was a well-reviewed movie about the Atacama Desert last year called Nostalgia for the Light, which touches on both the science and local politics of the area.

The Atacama desert was also featured in Planet Earth: Deserts[*], and even in the 2009 Top Gear holiday special.

[*]: And thus likely also in various American shows where they replace Attenborough with old B-stars reading scripts badly, and cut a quarter of the footage to make room for commercials.

Link to actual article (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278543)

Why press releases like this fail to link the actual article is beyond me - surely that helps the research to be more widely read.

http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/pip/2012JG001961.shtml
(abstract is free, fulltext behind paywall)

By corollary (2, Funny)

JustOK (667959) | about 2 years ago | (#40278575)

Then there must be a place on Mars that is like Earth.

What is the fascination... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278639)

...with finding life on other planets, and the extreme amount of money we waste to do it? What is hoped to prove? That it exists? It does. It's a big damn universe. There is absolutely not a scintilla of doubt there is life elsewhere in the universe. I would hazard it is statistically impossible for their not to be life elsewhere. Is it anywhere near us where it might be of benefit? No. To find and name a single celled organism on Titan or an asteroid? Who cares. It changes nothing. Move along already.

Re:What is the fascination... (0)

viperidaenz (2515578) | about 2 years ago | (#40279093)

If it shuts up those religious nutters then its all money well spent. But even faced with irrefutable proof, they probably still wouldn't believe it.

Re:What is the fascination... (1)

infinitelink (963279) | about 2 years ago | (#40280853)

I can't think of a single significant religion that would be adversely affected by discovery of life elsewhere in the universe; that would require some kind of direct denial of that in its canons or whatever source of authority it may happen to have. So viperidaenz--put on your non-skeptic's dunce cap!

p.s. "religious nutters" is so broad it's even worse reasoning: the Chinese 'religious' are often the kind believing in some form of pantheism where 'heaven' is believed in, an all-powerful impersonal force (or passive power) that isn't like a 'god' in other religions; Indic religion, e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. either have many gods, and wouldn't be disturbed by such a find, or none--and wouldn't be disturbed by such a fine; one can keep going down the list of any religion that would be recognized or can be succinctly described to someone.

You make yourself the nutter by showing you're superstitious rather than knowledgeable about religion, as you rail against despite your own ignorance, given that like it or not, religions play a huge role in the world and are therefore important enough NOT to make such errors.

Re:What is the fascination... (1)

The Master Control P (655590) | about 2 years ago | (#40280343)

What's the fascination with doing anything other than foraging for food, escaping predators, and having sex? What do you hope to prove? What is the benefit? Who cares?

Re:What is the fascination... (1)

infinitelink (963279) | about 2 years ago | (#40280871)

It's called "being human"--from the latin "humanus". : D Latina es gaudium et utilis et debes cognizare de humano.

Re:What is the fascination... (1)

infinitelink (963279) | about 2 years ago | (#40280829)

Arguing from statistics like that is popular today and done even by some rather great minds, but it's nonetheless an abuse of statistics and numbers, and they people should know better: it just assumes and lets men become the faithful of numbers and their own assumptions, rather than real explorers and open-minded scientists.

And now it's tainted (0)

Gothmolly (148874) | about 2 years ago | (#40278659)

The biosphere up there is now tainted by the intestinal and vaginal flora and fauna carried by the researchers. Thanks Boulder.

Re:And now it's tainted (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40278997)

The biosphere up there is now tainted by the dead intestinal and vaginal flora and fauna carried by the researchers. Thanks Boulder.

FTFY.

Re:And now it's tainted (1)

jbeaupre (752124) | about 2 years ago | (#40281607)

I can't believe researchers would drop drawers and scoot around on the desert floor rubbing their ...

Oh! That kind of tainted!

Re:And now it's tainted (1)

Sulphur (1548251) | about 2 years ago | (#40281907)

I can't believe researchers would drop drawers and scoot around on the desert floor rubbing their ...

Oh! That kind of tainted!

'Tis or taint, S'cooter.

picupload.pl (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#40280077)

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http://picupload.pl

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