Ultra-small microorganisms in the polyextreme conditions of the Dallol volcano, Northern Afar, Ethiopia

Gómez, F., Cavalazzi, B., Rodríguez, N., Amils, R., Ori, G. G., Olsson Francis, K., Escudero, C., Martínez, J. M., Miruts, H. 2019. Ultra-small microorganisms in the polyextreme conditions of the Dallol volcano, Northern Afar, Ethiopia. Scientific Reports 9 DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-44440-8

The Dallol geothermal area in the northern part of the Danakil Depression (up to 124-155 meter below sea level) is deemed one of the most extreme environments on Earth. The area is notable for being part of the Afar Depression, an incipient seafloor-spreading center located at the triple junction, between Nubian, Somali and Arabian plates, and for hosting environments at the very edge of natural physical-chemical extremities. The northern part of the Danakil Depression is dominated by the Assale salt plain (an accumulation of marine evaporite deposits) and hosts the Dallol volcano. Here, the interaction between the evaporitic deposit and the volcanisms have created the unique Dallol hot springs, which are highly acidic (pH similar to 0) and saline (saturation) with maximum temperatures ranging between 90 and 109 degrees C. Here we report for the first time evidence of life existing with these hot springs using a combination of morphological and molecular analyses. Ultra-small structures are shown to be entombed within mineral deposits, which are identified as members of the Order Nanohaloarchaea. The results from this study suggest the microorganisms can survive, and potential live, within this extreme environment, which has implications for understanding the limits of habitability on Earth and on (early) Mars.

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