In pictures: Welcome to the deadliest waters on planet Earth

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.

Laguna Roja

Aerial view of Red Lake

An aerial view of Laguna Roja in northern Chile. Although the high concentration of salt gives the lake its red color, this lake is as hot as it looks. The water temperature here can reach 50 degrees Celsius. Photo by Olivier Grunewald © Oliver Grunewald

high in the Andes mountains

Scientists from the lake beyond the snow-capped mountains

The Salar de Huasco has seen its water levels drop in the past few years. Scientists believe that this water loss is due to either climate change, which reduces rainfall in this region, or water removal due to lithium mining operations. Salar de Atacama is home to the world’s largest lithium mining program, which is primary in the production of rechargeable batteries. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

Laguna Pugsa

Yellow and orange rock lake with mountains

At an altitude of 4,700 meters above sea level, the colorful Laguna Pujsa lagoon is filled with mineral elements and microorganisms. Scientists from the National Center for Scientific Research and the Chilean University of Antofagasta collected water and took core samples from the ground to search for extremophiles capable of living in this hypersaline environment. The high winds that blow every day in the early afternoon make working conditions difficult for the teams. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

Laguna Brava

A man wearing a hat holds a rock and hammer sample

Microbiologist David Moreira of the National Center for Scientific Research takes a rock sample from Laguna Brava salt lake on the high plains of the Salar de Atacama, Chile. This sample will be returned to France to be cataloged and studied. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

Laguna Tara

Aerial view of people walking in a rocky orange lake

At an altitude of more than 4,300 metres, Laguna Tara, near San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, is an area teeming with wildlife, including flamingos and Andean foxes. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

Boating in Laguna Roja

People pulling the boat out of Red Lake

Scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Chilean University of Antofagasta collect water samples from Laguna Roja in northern Chile. The team ventured into this lake in a small inflatable boat, searching for microorganisms in the water that managed to survive such harsh conditions. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

Salar de Lamara

A man in the water hands a woman a green plant

Much lower, at just 1,000 meters above sea level, the Salar de Larama lies in the heart of the driest region of the Atacama. This lake is known for its salt formations and is one of the locations where the biomass is mainly composed of microorganisms. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

More photos from Focus on science:

Sample collection

Scientists sort the samples into bags

Every evening during the study, the scientific team from CNRS and the Chilean University of Antofagasta sort through the samples collected from the lakes, filter the water and carefully catalog the life samples they have collected. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

Take samples to the laboratory

Keep a sample of water in a tube above the notebook

In total, more than 120 kg of samples were brought to France to be cultured and analyzed at the Paris-Saclay University headquarters, where the CNRS team is based. Once analyzed, the studies will yield large amounts of DNA data, and scientists expect to find new, previously undiscovered groups of microbes. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

Nice but inhospitable

Steam rising from an orange lake with mountains behind

Steam rises from the hot waters of Laguna Roja high in the Chilean Andes. Working here is dangerous for several reasons. First, a high altitude means there is a lack of oxygen, and requires a gradual acclimatization process. UV rays are also strong, so skin and eyes must be protected. Photo by Olivier Grunewald

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.

Read more:

Leave a Comment