The first rains in centuries to fall on parts of the hyper-arid Atacama Desert in Chile have devastated the microbial life in the region, according to a new study led by researchers from the Centre for Astrobiology (CAB) at the Universidad Autónoma de Chile.
The deluge resulted in the opposite of what scientists expected, with the downpour upsetting the ecological balance, rather than encouraging new life to spring up.
The Atacama Desert is located in the northern part of Chile and is the oldest and driest desert part of Earth. It occupies an area of approximately 105,000 square kilometres.
According to scientists, the hyper-arid core of Atacama has remained hyper-arid for the past 15 million years. The place is so dry that some regions in the desert have not received any rainfall in the past 500 years.
Even in such unfriendly and inhospitable conditions, some soil microbial species have adapted themselves to survive in the Atacama Desert. But, most of these microbes vanished in past three years due to unexpected rainfall in the region, according to the new study.
The findings revealed that most microbial species could not survive the osmotic shock resulting from the sudden abundance of water in the region and perished quickly. Nearly 85 per cent of the microbial species, including the autochthonous micro-organisms, vanished in the past three years.
"Our group has discovered that, contrary to what could be expected intuitively, the never-before-seen rainfall has not triggered a flowering of life in Atacama, but instead, the rains have caused enormous devastation in the microbial species that inhabited the region before the heavy precipitations," explains Dr Alberto G. Fairén, the lead author of the new study.
The heavy rains in the region are being attributed to the change in climate over the Pacific Ocean.
Researchers said they place their new findings in the context of the astrobiological exploration of Mars, a planet that is presently hyper-arid but has seen extreme flooding in ancient times.
Latest studies have indicated that large volumes of water carved the Martian surface in the form of outflow channels about 3.5 to three billion years ago. Researchers believe any microbial communities present on Mars during that period would have gone through the similar osmotic stress as experienced by the microbes in the Atacama Desert.
Notably, NASA - in 2003 - selected Atacama as the site to conduct tests simulating conditions on Mars.
The findings of the study are published in journal Scientific Reports.
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