Microorganisms in Parched Regions Extract Needed Water From Colonized Rocks

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In Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, microorganisms are able to eke out an existence by extracting water from the very rocks they colonize.

Through work in the field and laboratory experiments, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, as well as Johns Hopkins University and UC Riverside, gained an in-depth understanding of the mechanisms by which some cyanobacteria survive in harsh surroundings.

The new insights, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrate how life can flourish in places without much water in evidence – such as Mars – and how people living in arid regions may someday derive hydration from available minerals.

“The Army Research Office funded this project because they want to understand how organisms can survive in extreme environments,” said lead author David Kisailus, UCI professor of materials science & engineering. “They also wanted us to help translate that to enabling humans to cope with the harshest of conditions, whether it be out in the middle of the desert or while exploring other planets.”

Image: Microorganisms (highlighted in green) colonize gypsum rock (highlighted in purple) to extract water from it. UCI and Johns Hopkins researchers ran lab experiments to understand the survival mechanisms of these cyanobacteria, confirming that they transform the material they occupy to an anhydrous state. (Credit: David Kisailus/UCI)

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