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Searching for microbial life remotely: Satellite-to-rover habitat mapping in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Warren-Rhodes, K. and Weinstein, S. and Dohm, J. and Piatek, J. and Minkley, E. and Hock, A. and Cockell, C. and Pane, D. and Ernst, L. A. and Fisher, G. and Emani, S. and Waggoner, A. S. and Cabrol, N. A. and Wettergreen, D. S. and Apostolopoulos, D. and Coppin, Peter and Grin, E. and Diaz, Chong and Moersch, J. and Oril, G. G. and Smith, T. and Stubbs, K. and Thomas, G. and Wagner, M. and Wyatt, M. (2007) Searching for microbial life remotely: Satellite-to-rover habitat mapping in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 112 (G4). n/a-n/a. ISSN 01480227

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2006JG000283

Abstract

[1] The Atacama Desert, one of the most arid landscapes on Earth, serves as an analog for the dry conditions on Mars and as a test bed in the search for life on other planets. During the Life in the Atacama (LITA) 2004 field experiment, satellite imagery and ground-based rover data were used in concert with a ‘follow-the-water’ exploration strategy to target regions of biological interest in two (1 coastal, 1 inland) desert study sites. Within these regions, environments were located, studied and mapped with spectroscopic and fluorescence imaging (FI) for habitats and microbial life. Habitats included aqueous sedimentary deposits (e.g., evaporites), igneous materials (e.g., basalt, ash deposits), rock outcrops, drainage channels and basins, and alluvial fans. Positive biological signatures (chlorophyll, DNA, protein) were detected at 81% of the 21 locales surveyed with the FI during the long-range, autonomous traverses totaling 30 km. FI sensitivity in detecting microbial life in extreme deserts explains the high percentage of positives despite the low actual abundance of heterotrophic soil bacteria in coastal (<1–104 CFU/g-soil) and interior (<1–102 CFU/g-soil) desert soils. Remote habitat, microbial and climate observations agreed well with ground-truth, indicating a drier and less microbially rich interior compared to the relatively wetter and abundant biology of the coastal site where rover sensors detected the presence of fog and abundant surface lichens. LITA project results underscore the importance of an explicit focus by all engineering and science disciplines on microbially relevant scales (mm to nm), and highlight the success of satellite-based and ‘follow-the-water’ strategies for locating diverse habitats of biological promise and detecting the microbial hotspots within them.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright 2007 American Geophysical Union http://doi.wiley.com/10.1029/2006JG000283
Divisions: Faculty of Design
Date Deposited: 16 Feb 2017 17:36
Last Modified: 18 Feb 2017 00:16
URI: http://openresearch.ocadu.ca/id/eprint/1436

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