Secret Atacama Lake That Could Hold Clues to the Origin of Life on Earth!

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Discovery of the Atacama
Green hills of stromatolites bloom at the bottom of the lagoon in Puna de Atacama, Argentina. Credit: Brian Hynek.
Karen Teixeira Karen Teixeira Weathered Brazil 4 minutes

New evidence the first forms of life on planet earth appeared in a “world-unique” ecosystem in Puna from Atacama, Argentina. The discovery, made by geologist Brian Hynek of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Argentine microbiologist María Farías, was announced last week. after studying satellite images of the region.

The geologist helped document what may be a unique type of ecosystem on Earth and a possible window into the early stages of life on this planet 3.65 billion years agoand even ancient life on Mars.

Here, rain rarely, if ever, falls and the sun shines brightly, creating an environment in which few plants or animals can survive, said Hynek, a professor in the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics.

This a strange environment, previously unknown to science, form a system of lagoons surrounded by vast salt flats. Beyond them lie the desert plateaus 3,600 meters above sea level and is among the driest environments on Earth.

A secret ecosystem discovered in the Atacama

Now, according to new research, the lagoons are home to something else: live examples of stromatolites, or complex microbial communities that form giant rock piles as they grow. This species is a bit like coral that builds a reef millimeter by millimeter.

Hynk’s preliminary observations suggest that these communities may resemble stromatolites that existed during a period of Earth’s history called the Archean, when there was almost no oxygen in the atmosphere.

According to NASA, they represent the oldest fossil evidence of life on planet Earth. Since their creation, they have obtained energy from the Sun and by producing oxygen, they have increased the volume of this chemical element in the planet’s atmosphere by about 20%, which has enabled them to thrive on Earth.

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Stromatolites generally refer to a variety of microbial communities associated with rock layers. Ancient stromatolites could reach a height of 6 meters. The mounds in the Atacama Lagoons looked much more like some of these Archaean communities than anything living on Earth today.

Its rock layers were made primarily of gypsum, a mineral common in many fossil stromatolites, but absent from almost all modern stromatolite examples.

A piece of Mars on Earth

According to Kynk, this proved to be the case these piles actually grow from microbes, which happened to the older ones. Why they formed into this difficult position is not clear. The lagoon environment may resemble conditions on ancient Earth, associated with salty and acidic waters, as well as exposure to high levels of solar radiation associated with the site’s high altitude.

These communities could also provide researchers with unprecedented insight into how life might have originated on Mars, a planet that resembled Earth thousands of years ago.

Understanding these modern communities on Earth could inform what to look for when we look for similar formations in Martian rocks, Hynek said. Hynek and Farías hope to conduct further experiments to confirm that these new stromatolites are actively building their rock formations and to investigate how the microbes manage to survive the harsh conditions.

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