Microbial ecology

Microbial characterization of microbial ecosystems associated to evaporites domes of gypsum in Salar de Llamara in Atacama desert.

PMID 24859438


The Central Andes in northern Chile contains a large number of closed basins whose central depression is occupied by saline lakes and salt crusts (salars). One of these basins is Salar de Llamara (850 m a.s.l.), where large domed structures of seemingly evaporitic origin forming domes can be found. In this work, we performed a detailed microbial characterization of these domes. Mineralogical studies revealed gypsum (CaSO(4)) as a major component. Microbial communities associated to these structures were analysed by 454 16S rDNA amplicon sequencing and compared between winter and summer seasons. Bacteroidetes Proteobacteria and Planctomycetes remained as the main phylogenetic groups, an increased diversity was found in winter. Comparison of the upper air-exposed part and the lower water-submerged part of the domes in both seasons showed little variation in the upper zone, showing a predominance of Chromatiales (Gammaproteobacteria), Rhodospirillales (Alphaproteobacteria), and Sphingobacteriales (Bacteroidetes). However, the submerged part showed marked differences between seasons, being dominated by Proteobacteria (Alpha and Gamma) and Verrucomicrobia in summer, but with more diverse phyla found in winter. Even though not abundant by sequence, Cyanobacteria were visually identified by scanning electron microscopy (SEM), which also revealed the presence of diatoms. Photosynthetic pigments were detected by high-performance liquid chromatography, being more diverse on the upper photosynthetic layer. Finally, the system was compared with other endoevaporite, mats microbialite and Stromatolites microbial ecosystems, showing higher similitude with evaporitic ecosystems from Atacama and Guerrero Negro. This environment is of special interest for extremophile studies because microbial life develops associated to minerals in the driest desert all over the world. Nevertheless, it is endangered by mining activity associated to copper and lithium extraction; thus, its environmental protection preservation is strongly encouraged.