Spatial variability of microbial communities and salt distributions across a latitudinal aridity gradient in the Atacama Desert

Jianxun Shen, Adam Wyness, Mark Claire, Aubrey Zerkle

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Abstract

Over the past 150 million years, the Chilean Atacama Desert has been transformed into one of the most inhospitable landscapes by geophysical changes, which makes it an ideal Mars analog that has been explored for decades. However, a heavy rainfall that occurred in the Atacama in 2017 provides a unique opportunity to study the response of resident extremophiles to rapid environmental change associated with excessive water and salt shock. Here we combine mineral/salt composition measurements, amendment cell culture experiments, and next-generation sequencing analyses to study the variations in salts and microbial communities along a latitudinal aridity gradient of the Atacama Desert. In addition, we examine the reshuffling of Atacama microbiomes after the rainfall event. Analysis of microbial community composition revealed that soils within the southern arid desert were consistently dominated by Actinobacteria, Chloroflexi, Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, Gemmatimonadetes, Planctomycetes, and Acidobacteria, and Verrucomicrobia. Intriguingly, the hyperarid microbial consortia exhibited a similar pattern to the more southern desert. Salts at the shallow subsurface were dissolved and leached down to a deeper layer, challenging indigenous microorganisms with the increasing osmotic stress. Microbial viability was found to change with aridity and rainfall events. This study sheds light on the structure of xerotolerant, halotolerant, and radioresistant microbiomes from the hyperarid northern desert to the less arid southern transition region, as well as their response to changes in water availability.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages17
JournalMicrobial Ecology
VolumeFirst Online
Early online date13 Jan 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Jan 2021

Keywords

  • Atacama microbiome
  • Function prediction
  • Extremophiles
  • Osmotic stress
  • Salt amendments

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