The secret lake in Atacama that may hold clues to the origin of life on Earth!

Researchers have discovered a secret ecosystem in the Atacama Puna region of Argentina that may reveal a clue about the first forms of life on planet Earth.

green Mountains
Green mountains of stromatolites bloom at the bottom of a lagoon in Puna de Atacama, Argentina. Credit: Brian Hynek.

A new evidence of the first forms of life on planet Earth emerged in an "unique in the world" ecosystem in Puna do Atacama, Argentina. The discovery, made by geologist Brian Hynek, from the University of Colorado in Boulder, and Argentine microbiologist María Farías, was announced last week and occurred after the study of satellite images of the region.

The geologist helped to document what can be a unique type of ecosystem on Earth, and a possible window to the first stages of life on this planet 3.65 billion years ago, and even to the ancient life of Mars.

Here, rain rarely falls, or never, and sunlight falls strongly, creating an environment in which few plants or animals can survive, said Hynek, a professor at the Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics.

This strange environment, until then unknown to science, consists of a system of lagoons surrounded by vast salt plains. The desert plateaus are more than 3,600 metres above sea level, and are among the driest environments on Earth.

Secret ecosystem was found in Atacama

Now, according to a new investigation, the ponds are home to something else: vibrant displays of stromatolithes, or complex microbial communities that form giant rock moults as they grow. This species is somewhat similar to corals, which build a reef millimetre by millimetre.

Hynek's preliminary observations suggest that these communities may resemble stromatoliths, which existed during a period in Earth's history called the early Archean, when oxygen was almost non-existent in the atmosphere.

According to NASA, they represent the oldest fossil evidence of life on planet Earth. Since its origin, they have obtained energy from the Sun and, by producing oxygen, they have increased the volume of this chemical element in the planet's atmosphere to about 20%, allowing life to prosper on Earth.

youtube video id=fVmYAw8fqKo

Stromatolites, in general, refer to a number of microbial communities associated with rock layers. And the old stromatolites could reach 6 metres in height. The hills in the Atacama lagoons looked much more like some of these Archean communities than anything alive on Earth today.

Its rock layers were built mainly from plaster, a mineral common in many stromatolite fossils, but absent in almost all modern examples of stromatolites.

A piece of Mars on Earth

According to Kynek, it was discovered that these mountains are actually growing from microbes, which is what happened in the oldest. It is not clear why they slipped from this difficult place.

The environment of the lagoon may resemble the conditions of the ancient Earth, associated with salt and acidic waters, in addition to exposure to severe levels of solar radiation, related to the high altitude of the place.

Communities could also provide researchers with an unprecedented view of how life may have emerged on Mars, which resembled Earth thousands of years ago.

It is believed that if life had evolved on Mars at the level of fossils, it would have been found in this way in Atacama. And understanding these modern communities on Earth could inform us about what we should look for when looking for similar characteristics in Martian rocks, Hynek said.

Puna do Atacama in Argentina features unique ecosystems on Earth.
Puna do Atacama in Argentina features unique ecosystems on Earth.

Hynek and Farías hope to carry out more experiments to confirm that these new stromatolites are actively building their rock formations, and explore how microbes can survive adverse conditions.