Hawaii’s volcanic environment includes New research this week has uncovered a large collection of mysterious microbes. Scientists say unique, diverse and still unusual bacterial communities live in island lava caves and other formations created by volcanic activity. The findings suggest much remains to be learned about life in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth.
Researchers from several universities and NASA collaborated in this research, namely published Thursday in Frontiers in Microbiology. They studied samples collected from 70 sites along the Big Island of Hawaii, the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. These sites include caves, taps, and fumaroleThese are openings or openings through which water and volcanic gases can exit. They analyzed and sequenced the RNA present in the sample, to produce a rough map of the bacterial community that lived there.
Some of these regions, particularly those with constant geothermal activity, are some of the most extreme places on Earth, as they are extremely hot and filled with chemicals toxic to most living things. The research team therefore hopes to find a relatively low diversity of life within sites subject to these harsh conditions. The researchers found that ancient caves and tubes that were built more than 500 years ago had a greater diversity of bacteria. But to their surprise, even the active geothermal vents were filled with bacteria. Compared to other sites, bacterial communities in these harsh habitats appear more complex in how they interact with each other.
“This brings us to the question, do extreme environments help create more interactive microbial communities, where microorganisms are more dependent on one another?” Study author Rebecca Prescott, a researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the University of Hawaii, said in a Statement. “And if so, what about the harsh environment that helped create it?
Bacteria rarely overlap at these sites, meaning that these environments host their own unique microbial worlds, with at least thousands of unknown species left to be identified. One group of bacteria, in particular one known as the Chloroflexi, may be particularly influential, although they are commonly found in various volcanic regions and appear to interact with many other organisms. They may be an example of a “central species” – microbes essential to the structure and function of their communities.
“This study suggests the possibility that ancient bacterial strains, such as the phylum Chloroflexi, may have ‘an important ecological function or role,'” Prescott said. “Chloroflexi are a very diverse group of bacteria, with many different roles in many different environments, but they are not well studied, so we don’t know what they do in this society. Some scientists refer to this group as “microbial dark matter”—microorganisms that are invisible or undetectable in nature.”
This type of genetic sampling study can provide a comprehensive view of the bacterial world present in a given location, but cannot provide more detailed information about individual species or their role in their microbiome. So scientists say that more research is needed to understand this volcanic population. Over time, what we learn may be very relevant to our understanding of how life began on Earth or even on Mars, as these environments may be the closest equivalents to what planets looked like in the past. can.