The existence of microbial activity hotspots in temperate regions of Earth is driven by soil heterogeneities, especially the temporal and spatial availability of nutrients. Here we investigate whether microbial activity hotspots also exist in lithic microhabitats in one of the most arid regions of the world, the Atacama Desert in Chile. While previous studies evaluated the total DNA fraction to elucidate the microbial communities, we here for the first time use a DNA separation approach on lithic microhabitats, together with metagenomics and other analysis methods (i.e., ATP, PLFA, and metabolite analysis) to specifically gain insights on the living and potentially active microbial community. Our results show that hypolith colonized rocks are microbial hotspots in the desert environment. In contrast, our data do not support such a conclusion for gypsum crust and salt rock environments, because only limited microbial activity could be observed. The hypolith community is dominated by phototrophs, mostly Cyanobacteria and Chloroflexi, at both study sites. The gypsum crusts are dominated by methylotrophs and heterotrophic phototrophs, mostly Chloroflexi, and the salt rocks (halite nodules) by phototrophic and halotolerant endoliths, mostly Cyanobacteria and Archaea. The major environmental constraints in the organic-poor arid and hyperarid Atacama Desert are water availability and UV irradiation, allowing phototrophs and other extremophiles to play a key role in desert ecology.
- Desert ecology