Facilitation of endolithic microbial survival in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert by mineral deliquescence



[1] The hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert is considered the dry limit for life on Earth. Soils in this region have very low abundance of heterotrophic bacteria and are practically barren of photosynthetic microorganisms because of the extreme dry conditions (≤2 mm a−1 rainfall). However, relatively abundant endolithic communities of cyanobacteria (Chroococcidiopsis) occur within halite crusts in paleolake evaporitic deposits. By means of continuous monitoring of the microclimate conditions (temperature, relative humidity, water vapor density, wetness, and photosynthetically active radiation) inside and around the halite crusts, we demonstrate here that water vapor condenses within the pore space of the halite at relative humidity (RH) levels that otherwise hinder the occurrence of liquid water in the surrounding environment. Water condensation occurs at RH >75%, which corresponds to the deliquescence point of halite. We have estimated a total of 57 deliquescence events (i.e., water condensation) within the halite crusts, as opposed to only 1 liquid water event outside. These wet events resulted in a total of 213.8 h of potential photosynthetic activity for the endolithic microorganisms versus only 6 h for organisms outside the halite crusts. Halite crusts may therefore represent the last available niche for photosynthetic activity in extreme arid environments on Earth.