- Micro-organisms in soil from one of the highest, driest places on earth has the potential to treat HIV.
- The landscape in the Atacama Desert is an extraordinary repository for actinobacterial 'dark matter' - which comprises the vast majority of microbes.
- The discovery of new bacteria could potentially be used to create new treatments.
Microbes in the soil of Cerro Chajnantor mountain landscape of Chile within the Atacama Desert has the potential to treat HIV, research from Newcastle University, UK, has revealed.
The study analyzed soils from the Atacama Desert, which is one of only two coastal deserts in the world. It is found to have a treasure trove of bacteria with the potential to fight disease.
‘Actinobacteria are keystone species in our ecosystems and are acknowledged as an unrivalled source of bioactive compounds.’
Professor Michael Goodfellow, Senior Research Investigator, Dr Roy Sanderson, Lecturer in Biological Modelling at Newcastle University and Dr Hamidah Idris, a former PhD student under their supervision, have explained these exciting findings from soil samples taken from heights of 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level.
"The Atacama Desert is the most extreme, non-polar biome on Earth considered to represent the dry limit for life and thought to be similar to soils on Mars," said Professor Michael Goodfellow. "This study focused on actinobacteria as they are keystone species in our ecosystems and are acknowledged as an unrivaled source of bioactive compounds.
Dark Matter Discovered in Atacama Desert
The landscape is an extraordinary repository for actinobacterial 'dark matter' - which comprises the vast majority of microbes that microbiologists are currently unable to cultivate. It is particularly interesting that there is so much 'dark matter' in Atacama Desert soils, which until recently were thought to be devoid of life.
Forty percent of the actinobacteria captured in samples could not be given ascribed names as they had never before been discovered. This microbial seed bank represents an enormous untapped resource for biotechnology programmes; especially in an era where resistance to existing antibiotics is rapidly becoming a major threat to global health.
The discovery of new bacteria could potentially be used to create new treatments as work continues to tackle the antibiotics time-bomb.
"It is also notable that one strain of bacteria found is proven to be an inhibitor of an enzyme that allows the HIV virus to reproduce itself. This could provide essential clues for the development of anti-HIV drugs."
The Cerro Chajnantor landscape of the Central Andes is a lava dome and part of a large volcanic complex formed on top of a pyroclastic shield - a type of volcano whose broad low-angle slopes are formed by the accumulation of fragmental material from powerful explosive eruptions.
It is subject to a combination of extreme environmental conditions including the world's highest levels of surface Ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
Extreme Weather Conditions Favor Bacterial Growth
UV-B irradiance and a range of unique soil characteristics were found to be very significant in determining the community compositions of bacteria in the area studied.
Since the mid-1970s, when microbiologists recognized that extreme environments are capable of sustaining life, research has developed rapidly; the attraction for microbiologists is that environmental limits to life on earth are defined by the presence of microorganisms. Nevertheless, reports of the microbiology of high altitude mountain soils worldwide are sparse and little information is available relating to those of the Central-Andes.
Dr Roy Sanderson said: "The data in this paper are among the first relating to the microbiology of very dry, very high altitude deserts. They provide important baseline information on the structure of actinobacterial communities in soils. We hope they will be used as a springboard for further research to benefit landscapes and people around the world."
- Alan T. Bull, Hamidah Idris, Roy Sanderson, Juan Asenjo, Barbara Andrews and Michael Goodfellow. 'High altitude, hyper-arid soils of the Central-Andes harbor mega-diverse communities of actinobacteria.' Extremophiles (2017). http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00792-017-0976-5