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Bacteria: Distribution and activity of microorganisms in the Atacama Desert

Research areas: Microbial Ecology and Applied Microbiology

Principal investigator: Prof. Dr. Claudia Knief


Project Info

project pic b4 300pxFigure: Possible hot-spots for microbial life in the Atacama Desert: plants, soil crusts and the soil itself.  

Microbiological research in the Atacama Desert is largely driven by search for life in the hyperarid core. The occurrence of microorganisms has been found to be patchy and appears to be restricted to specific habitats with favorable environmental conditions, especially with regard to water availability. We study microorganisms in the Atacama Desert under three different aspects: distribution, activity and ecosystem function.

Biogeographic patterns of bacterial communities residing in different habitats of this ecosystem are analyzed and compared with each other. The focus will be on bacteria living in association with plants, animals, as well as in soil. The observed distribution patterns will be correlated to plant, protozoa and insect radiation data to prove the hypothesis of co-dispersal and possible co-evolution of macro- and microorganisms under extreme environmental conditions. Integration with physiochemical soil parameters and climatic data derived in the other projects of this CRC will allow conclusions about correlations between these parameters and bacterial occurrence.

Microbial activity is studied in dependence on water availability in samples from the Atacama Desert based on respiratory activity and metabolically active microorganisms are identified. The detection of DNA as molecular marker for microorganisms alone does not yet indicate the presence of viable cells. In particular in desert soils where biological degradation of organic matter is slow, these molecules may represent cell constituents of dead microbial cells, leftovers from periods of more favorable environmental conditions. This aspect is addressed in more detail in cooperation with project partners of D04 and B05.

The role of the desert microbiota for geomorphology is studied in collaboration with project C03, focusing on microorganisms in soil surface crusts. The important role of microorganisms in biological soil crust formation and the presence of such crusts for surface stabilization of vegetation-less areas is well known, but in the Atacama Desert, the role of microorganisms in (biological) soil crust formation has not yet been studied in detail. Microbial communities in different types of soil surface crusts are thus analyzed to assess the microbial colonization of different crusts in the Atacama Desert.


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Prof. Dr. Tibor J. Dunai
Institute of Geology and Mineralogy | University of Cologne
Zülpicher Str. 49b | 50674 Cologne
+49 (0)221 470-3229 | tdunai@uni-koeln.de
  Managing Director:
Christian Tiede
Institute of Geology and Mineralogy | University of Cologne

Zülpicher Str. 49b | 50674 Cologne
+49 (0)221 470-89833 | christian.tiede@uni-koeln.de
  Deputy Speaker:
Prof. Dr. Martin Melles
Institute of Geology and Mineralogy | University of Cologne

Zülpicher Str. 49a | 50674 Cologne
+49 (0)221 470-2262 | mmelles@uni-koeln.de
Tim Schlüter
Institute of Geography | University of Cologne

Otto-Fischer-Str. 4 | 50674 Cologne
+49 (0)221 470-3735 | webmaster@sfb1211.de
© 2018 CRC1211 - Earth - Evolution at the Dry Limit