Science & Technology

Getting Water From a Stone: How Life Survives in Extreme Environments

Microorganisms in inexperienced colonize gypsum rock to extract water from it. Johns Hopkins and UCI researchers ran lab experiments to grasp the mechanisms of survival for these cynanobacteria, confirming that they remodel the fabric they occupy to an anhydrous state. Credit score: David Kisailus / UCI

By finding out how the tiniest organisms in the Atacama Desert of Chile, one of many driest locations on Earth, extract water from rocks, researchers on the Johns Hopkins College, College of California, Irvine, and U.C. Riverside revealed how, towards all odds, life can exist in excessive environments.

A report of the findings printed this month in Proceedings of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences present how life can flourish in locations with out a lot water — together with Mars, which has an atmosphere just like the Atacama — and the way individuals residing in arid areas might sometime be capable to procure hydration from accessible minerals.

“Scientists have suspected for a very long time that microorganisms may be capable to extract water from minerals, however that is the primary demonstration of it,” says Jocelyne DiRuggiero, affiliate professor of biology on the Johns Hopkins College and the paper’s co-author.

“That is an incredible survival technique for microorganisms residing on the dry restrict for all times, and it supplies constraints to information our seek for life elsewhere.”

Researchers traveled to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile to gather samples of gypsum. The specimens have been introduced again to the US, and half-millimeter ‘coupons’ of fabric have been used in lab experiments that in the end confirmed the position microbes play in remodeling the rock to an anhydrous part via water extraction. Credit score: David Kisailus / UCI

The analysis staff centered on Chroococcidiospsis, a species of cyanobacteria that’s discovered in deserts world wide, and gypsum, a calcium sulfate-based mineral that comprises water. The colonizing lifeforms exist beneath a skinny layer of rock that provides them safety towards the Atacama’s excessive temperature, battering winds and blistering solar.

DiRuggiero traveled to the distant desert to gather gypsum samples, which she introduced again to her lab, reduce into small items the place the microorganisms may very well be discovered and despatched to David Kisailus, professor of supplies science & engineering at UCI, for supplies evaluation.

In one of the placing findings of the examine, the researchers realized that the microorganisms change the very nature of the rock they occupy. By extracting water, they trigger a part transformation of the fabric — from gypsum to anhydrite, a dehydrated mineral.

In keeping with DiRuggiero, the examine’s inspiration got here when Wei Huang, a UCI post-doctoral scholar in supplies science & engineering, noticed information exhibiting an overlap in concentrations of anhydrite and cyanobacteria in the gypsum samples collected in the Atacama.

Within the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, one of many driest locations on Earth, microorganisms stay beneath a skinny layer of rock to realize some safety from harsh winds, photo voltaic radiation and warmth. Nooks and crannies in the rocks can also be the place water, whereas restricted, might gather. Credit score: Jocelyne DiRuggiero/Johns Hopkins College

DiRuggiero’s staff then allowed the organisms to colonize half-millimeter cubes of rocks, referred to as coupons, beneath two completely different circumstances: one in the presence of water, to imitate a high-humidity atmosphere, and the opposite utterly dry. Within the presence of moisture, the gypsum didn’t remodel to the anhydrite part.

“They didn’t want water from the rock, they acquired it from their environment,” stated Kisailus. “However once they have been put beneath harassed circumstances, the microbes had no different however to extract water from the gypsum, inducing this part transformation in the fabric.”

Kisailus’ staff used a mixture of superior microscopy and spectroscopy to look at the interactions between the organic and geological counterparts, discovering that the organisms bore into the fabric like tiny miners by excreting a biofilm containing natural acids, Kisailus stated.

Huang used a modified electron microscope outfitted with a Raman spectrometer to find that the organisms used the acid to penetrate the rock in particular crystallographic instructions — solely alongside sure planes the place they may extra simply entry water current between faces of calcium and sulfate ions.

“Does it imply there may be life on Mars? We can not say, however it provides us an thought of how artful microorganisms could be,” says DiRuggiero.

The findings may additionally assist researchers develop different sensible functions for protection. “The Military has a robust curiosity in how microorganisms well-adapted to excessive environments could be exploited for novel functions equivalent to materials synthesis and energy era inside these harsh fielded environments,” provides Robert Kokoska, program supervisor, Military Analysis Workplace, a component of U.S. Military Fight Capabilities Improvement Command’s Military Analysis Workplace.

“This examine supplies precious clues for uncovering the developed “design methods” utilized by these native desert-dwelling microbes to keep up their viability in the face of a number of environmental challenges.”

Reference: “Mechanism of water extraction from gypsum rock by desert colonizing microorganisms” by Wei Huang, Emine Ertekin, Taifeng Wang, Luz Cruz, Micah Dailey, Jocelyne DiRuggiero and David Kisailus, 4 Could 2020, Proceedings of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences.

Funding for this venture was offered by the Military Analysis Workplace and NASA.

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