One of the driest places on the planet is not where you would expect to find some of the most dangerous waters on Earth. But high in Chile’s Andes, the Salar de Atacama salt flats are home to some of the toughest bacteria, living in highly toxic lakes full of salt, lithium and arsenic.
Now scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Chilean University of Antofagasta are engaged in the study of microorganisms, with the aim of learning more about how life survives in such conditions, and how these secrets can also help us to fight plastic pollution.
The team, led by microbiologists Purificación López-Garcìa and David Moriera of the CNRS, examined 15 salt lakes, taking samples from the lakes’ brackish water and scalding water from the geysers. The team will then produce an inventory of the microbial life found in salt crystals, hot tubs, geysers and blood red lakes.
However, the study also highlighted damage to salt flats caused by mining lithium – an essential component in the production of rechargeable batteries.
“It takes a lot of water to extract lithium for many of these unique ecosystems to disappear,” said Professor López-Garçoa. BBC Science Focus. “The water disappeared, and with it the microbial ecosystems we study, and after them, the rare but distinctive fauna and flora of the highlands.”
Scientists hope that in the future the ability to degrade plastics by extreme bacteria found in places like this will help develop new and safe ways to tackle plastic pollution.
high in the Andes mountains
Boating in Laguna Roja
Salar de Lamara
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Take samples to the laboratory
Nice but inhospitable
About our expert
Purificación López-García is Director of Research at the French National Center for Scientific Research. Her work focuses on microbial lineages and the early evolution of life on Earth.