Home / News and Events / Media Releases / Antarctic microbes

Antarctic microbes can live on thin air, study shows - 07/12/2017

An investigation involving New Zealand and Australian scientists has discovered that microbes in Antarctica have a previously unknown ability to scavenge hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide from the air to stay alive in the extreme conditions.

Dr Carlo Carere

The finding has implications for the search for life on other planets, suggesting extra-terrestrial microbes could also rely on trace atmospheric gases for survival.

“Antarctica is one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Yet the cold, dark and dry desert regions are home to a surprisingly rich diversity of microbial communities,” says study senior author and University of New South Wales scientist Associate Professor Belinda Ferrari.

“The big question has been how the microbes can survive when there is little water, the soils are very low in organic carbon and there is very little capacity to produce energy from the sun via photosynthesis during the winter darkness.”

The study published in Nature this week, found that the Antarctic microbes had evolved mechanisms to live on air instead, and they can get most of the energy and carbon they need by scavenging trace atmospheric gases, including hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

As well as researchers from the University of New South Wales, the study involved specialists from GNS Science, Monash University, the Australian Centre for Ecogenomics at the University of Queensland, and the Australian Antarctic Division.

The scientists collected soil samples from two coastal ice-free sites in different regions of eastern Antarctica. One was Robinson Ridge, 10km from Casey Station, in Wilkes land. The other site was Adams Flat, 242km from Davis Station in Princes Elizabeth Land.

“Both areas are pristine polar deserts devoid of any vascular plants,” said contributing author on the study Dr Carlo Carere of GNS Science.

The researchers studied the microbial DNA in the surface soil from both sites and reconstructed the genomes of 23 of the microbes that lived there, including some of the first genomes of two groups of previously unknown bacteria called WPS-2 and AD3.

They found the dominant species in the soils had genes that gave them a high affinity for hydrogen and carbon monoxide, allowing them to remove the trace gases from the air at a high enough rate to sustain their energy needs and support carbon dioxide fixation.

“Atmospheric hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases represent dependable sources of energy for microbial communities in soils,” said contributing author on the study Carlo Carere of GNS Science.

“This research provides new understanding about how life is able to survive in physically extreme and nutrient-starved environments, like Antarctica, and it opens up the possibility of atmospheric gases supporting life on other planets,” Dr Carere said.