Staring out across the desolate landscape of Valle de la Luna, the idea seems counter-intuitive.
What could the world’s driest desert, home to some of the most extreme levels of ultraviolet radiation on Earth, have to do with fighting disease? But as Michael Goodfellow, a microbiologist at Newcastle University, explains, the Atacama Desert’s inhospitality is exactly what could make it useful to us.
“The premise was that since the conditions are so harsh in the Atacama Desert, organisms become adapted to those conditions,” he says. Goodfellow hoped that if bacteria had managed to survive in such a hostile environment, they would likely produce novel chemical structures which could have important medical applications.
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In 2008, he was handed a soil sample taken from the desert’s hyper-arid core, parts of which are thought to have experienced virtually no rainfall for millions of years and were once considered beyond the dry limit for life. “Quite frankly, we didn’t expect to isolate anything,” Goodfellow admits. But to his surprise, he was able to grow a diverse population of bacteria from the sample, sparking a decade of research into the desert’s microbial fauna.