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Soils of the Atacama Desert: reservoir and fingerprint of life

Research areas: Microbial Ecology and Applied Microbiology

Principal investigators: PD Dr. Eva Lehndorff, Dr. Roland Bol, Prof. Dr. Erwin Klumpp, Prof. Dr. Wulf Amelung


Project Info

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Photo: Eva Lehndorff

Soils are the habitat and reservoir for plants and microorganisms, which leave their fingerprints as organic residues, microaggregate glues, stoichiometry of key nutrients and altered isotopic composition of, e.g., δ18O of phosphates. Here we will

  1. identify and quantify organic residues in soil profiles and along potential plant dispersal corridors,
  2. relate occurrence of organic matter, alterations in nutrient pools and physical soil properties to potential trajectories in microclimate and present and past dispersal of life, and
  3. elucidate changes in organic matter properties, nutrient content and stoichiometry dynamics in soil to a sudden increase in water availability.

We hypothesize that soil properties have contributed to preferential pathways or barriers of the dispersal of life, and that most soil forming processes occurred within very short periods when water is available, while traces of dormancy and (past) life may be buried and diluted by the continuous deposition of nutrient/salts. Hence, we assume that in particular the subsoils will reveal an unique though little explored archive of organic matter and nutrient fingerprints of past and present life in the Atacama Desert.

These hypotheses are evaluated using a combination of optimized method protocols, sophisticated biomarker, nutrient stoichiometry, stable isotope and colloid analyses, as well as spectroscopic mapping of hot spot patterns at both micro- and macroscale – following potential biogeographic dispersal pathways and artificial irrigation events (with Z3). This project contributes to the overall research hypothesis by elucidatingspatial patterns of soil organic matter and nutrient status as the reservoir for life.

The CRC will enable us to elucidate the role of climate, wind transport and dust deposition on soil formation and nutrient contents (with A3, C2, C3, and Z3), to link gypsum deposits to soil nutrients (with D3 and C4), and to unravel biological processes and time-scales of organic matter accumulation (with B1, B4 and Z4).


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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