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AGU: Journal of Geophysical Research, Biogeosciences



  • Chloroflexi
  • Mars
  • chemoautotrophy
  • cold desert
  • extremophiles
  • trace gas oxidation

Index Terms

  • 0410 - Biodiversity
  • 0414 - Biogeochemical cycles, processes, and modeling
  • 0465 - Microbiology: ecology, physiology and genomics
  • 0486 - Soils/pedology
  • 0490 - Trace gases

Paper in Press


The potential for microbial life in the highest elevation (>6000 m.a.s.l.) mineral soils of the Atacama region

Key Points
  • Extreme freeze thaw cycles above 6000 meters
  • Carbon Monoxide supports high-elevation life
  • Soil C and N levels extremely low above 6000 meters


Ryan C Lynch

Andrew J King

Mariá E Farías

Preston Sowell

Christian Vitry

Steve K Schmidt

Here we present the first culture-independent microbiological and biogeochemical study of the mineral soils from 6000 meters above sea level (m.a.s.l.) on some the highest volcanoes in the Atacama region of Argentina and Chile. These soils experience some of the harshest environmental conditions on Earth including daily temperature fluctuations across the freezing point (with an amplitude of up to 70{degree sign}C) and intense solar radiation. Soil carbon and water levels are among the lowest yet measured for a terrestrial ecosystem and enzyme activity was near or below detection limits for all microbial enzymes measured. The soil microbial communities were among the simplest yet studied in a terrestrial environment and contained novel Bacteria and Fungi and only one Archaeal phylotype. No photosynthetic organisms were detected but several of the dominant bacterial phylotypes are related to organisms involved in carbon monoxide oxidation on other volcanoes (e.g. Pseudonocardia and Ktedonobacter spp.). Focused studies of a gene responsible for carbon monoxide oxidation, the large subunit of carbon monoxide dehydrogenase (coxL of CODH), revealed several novel lineages and a broad diversity of coxL genes. Overall our results suggest that a unique microbial community, sustained by diffuse atmospheric and volcanic gases, is barely functioning on these volcanoes, which represent the highest terrestrial ecosystems yet studied.

Received 20 January 2012; accepted 5 May 2012.

Citation: Lynch, R. C., A. J. King, M. E. Farías, P. Sowell, C. Vitry, and S. K. Schmidt (2012), The potential for microbial life in the highest elevation (>6000 m.a.s.l.) mineral soils of the Atacama region, J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2012JG001961, in press.