London, Apr 3 (ANI): Flamingos and mysterious microbes have been found living in an alkaline lagoon nestled inside a volcano in the Andes- a discovery that could tell how life began on Earth.
According to Argentinian investigators, the organisms, exposed to arsenic and poisonous gases, could shed light on how life began on Earth and their hardiness to extreme conditions may hold the key to new scientific applications, reports Nature.
In 2009, a team led by Maria Eugenia Farias, a microbiologist at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Tucuman, Argentina, discovered living stromatolites in the ocompa and Tolar Grande lagoons high in the Andes.
Stromatolites - collections of photosynthetic microorganisms and calcareous concretions - are thought to have been common more than 3.5 billion years ago.
After that discovery, scientists in Argentina decided to look at lakes and lagoons in the Puna de Atacama, a desert plateau that sits more than 4,000 metres above sea level, in an attempt to understand what life might have looked like on the early Earth.
But when in February 2010 they explored Laguna Diamante inside the still active Cerro Galan volcano - one of the world's largest volcanic caldera - they found microbes and flamingos flourishing in the extreme conditions rather than stromatolites.
Farias said that the lagoon is hyper alkaline (pH 11) and contains concentrations of salt five times higher than those of sea water.
In addition, the concentration of arsenic in the water is 20,000 times higher than the level regarded as safe for drinking water by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Laguna del Diamante is located 4,600 metres above sea level, so any life also has to survive ultraviolet (UV) light that is around 40 percent more intense than in the lowlands as well as low oxygen concentrations, she added.
In addition, the volcano there is active and gaseous sulphur escaping from vents can make the environment even more hostile.
In the lagoon, the team found rocks coated with mats of microbes, which they have so far not identified.
The microorganisms serve as food for a colony of flamingos, which had never before been seen living in conditions quite as hostile as those in the lagoon.
Investigators determined that the flamingos feed on the microorganisms in the microbial mats.
However, the researchers have been unable to identify red crystals also found at the site.
"These rocks are made of calcium carbonate associated with little red crystal reefs. But analysis with X-ray diffraction does not show any known or expected mineral," said Farias.
Farias said that that the findings in Laguna del Diamante may also lead to clues on how life developed.
"Low oxygen concentrations, high UV exposure and intense alkalinity, as found in this lagoon, are believed to be the hallmarks of archaic Earth. During our investigations at the Puna e found different new types of plasmids and biodiversity, and we are certain that Laguna del Diamante will house new findings to help us explain how life began on Earth," she said. (ANI)