March 5, 2009

World’s highest microbial ecosystem found

U.S. scientists say they've discovered volcanic gases are aiding microbial life near the top of the 19,500-foot-tall Socompa volcano in the Andes Mountains.

University of Colorado-Boulder researchers said the microscopic life they found is the world's highest-known microbial ecosystem. It's being fed by the emissions of water, carbon dioxide and methane from small volcanic vents and sustains some complex microbes that are new to science.

Professor Steve Schmidt, who led the study, said the physical environment of the Socompa volcano summit, which straddles the border between Argentina and Chile high in the Atacama Desert, includes thin atmosphere, intense ultraviolet radiation and harsh climate -- all similar to the physical characteristics of Mars, where the hunt for microbial life is under way by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The team, which included university researchers Elizabeth Costello and Sasha Reed; Preston Sowell of Boulder's Stratus Consulting Inc.; and Stephan Halloy of Conservation International in La Paz, Bolivia, reported their discovery in the February issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.