- Title: Small RNAs in the driest desert on Earth
- POC: Alfonso Davila (SSX)
- Short story:
- Afonso Davila and Paul Wilburn from the Exobiology branch, along with collaborators from Johns Hopkins University, participated in a field expedition to the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile, between March 21st and April 4th. The goal of the expedition was to study for the first time the role of regulatory small RNAs (sRNAs) in the stress response of extremophiles and their ability to cope with environmental change. sRNAs represent a major class of regulatory molecules that play large-scale and essential roles in many cellular processes across all domains of life. However, microbial sRNAs have been primarily studied in model organisms and very little is known about the dynamics of sRNA synthesis in natural environments. The team is investigating microbial communities that are found in the driest parts of the Atacama Desert, which inhabit the interior of salt rocks (see Figure). Fieldwork activities included sampling and deployment of environmental sensors. The Atacama Desert is considered a Mars-analog environment due to its extreme dryness. Therefore, in addition to providing clues regarding the survival strategies of terrestrial microorganisms in extreme environments on earth, results from this project will also be relevant to habitability models of Mars. This project is funded by the NASA Exobiology Program.