The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest and strongest ultraviolet radiation regions in the world. Some places are said to have never rained for millions of years. In the desert hinterland, there is no grass and no animals, and it is considered a dead zone.
However, in 2008, American microbiologist Michael Goodfellow collected some soil samples in the hinterland of the Atacama Desert. After he brought these samples back to the laboratory, he actually cultivated a variety of bacteria-the seemingly lifeless Atacama Desert actually hides vitality!
Ordinary people may sigh, this discovery is really amazing! However, scientists believe that the harsh environment is bound to create extremely strong organisms. These organisms may have special chemical structures, which may be of great value to our scientific research.
Are the facts as they think?
A treasure trove of medicine opened unintentionally
Back then, one of the bacteria cultivated by Goodfellow was called Actinomycetes. Actinomycetes are microorganisms in the phylum Gram-positive bacteria. They are a type of prokaryotic organisms that grow mainly in the form of hyphae and reproduce by spores. They can survive on land and water. This kind of bacteria is famous in the microbiology community because they can secrete a chemical substance to prevent the growth of neighboring bacteria, and this chemical substance is just suitable for scientists to inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Actinomycetes are divided into multiple genera, among which Streptomyces has outstanding performance in medical research. Studies have shown that more than 50% of Streptomyces can produce antibiotics, and the currently developed antibiotics are mainly from actinomycetes, 90% of which are produced by Streptomyces. In 1944, scientists at Rutgers University in the United States successfully isolated a chemical substance from an actinomycete called Streptomyces guerii. They discovered that this chemical substance can inhibit the tuberculosis bacteria and developed the first An antibiotic to treat tuberculosis.
An environment like the Atacama Desert has become a good place to study potential new drugs.
We all know that every living thing on the planet is working hard to adapt to the environment, and bacteria are no exception. For example, superbugs, drug-resistant bacteria, have learned to get rid of the attacks of existing antibiotics, and threaten human health . According to statistics, hundreds of thousands of people around the world die every year because of superbugs. To make matters worse, since the end of the 20th century, the development of new antibiotics has encountered a bottleneck.
Following Goodfellow, many scientists have also begun to study bacteria living in the Atacama Desert. They discovered a variety of actinomycetes in the Atacama Desert. About 40% of them were discovered for the first time. This rekindled the hope of scientists looking for new antibiotics. A statistical data in 2018 showed that scientists have so far isolated 46 new molecules from bacteria found in the Atacama Desert, many of which have anti-virus and anti-cancer properties. Not only that, the bacteria found in the Atacama Desert may also have therapeutic effects on certain diseases. For example, in 2017, scientists discovered that a chemical substance secreted by an actinomycete in the Atacama Desert can inhibit the self-reproduction of HIV. This discovery provides a new direction for the development of anti-AIDS drugs.
Despite the discovery of many potentially useful bacteria, scientists are not blindly optimistic. They believe that many molecules extracted from these bacteria may never be used to make life-saving drugs, because pharmaceuticals not only need to consider whether certain ingredients have the ability to eliminate certain diseases, but also whether they are made into drugs. May have side effects on people. Antibiotics such as penicillin have strong bactericidal ability, but they may cause serious side effects. In addition, although these bacteria have anti-bacterial and anti-viral effects, it is also necessary to consider how big their effects are and whether they can exert sufficient curative effects. Therefore, which bacteria in the Atacama Desert can be used to make medicines need to undergo rigorous and meticulous research.
New bacterial species are being discovered in the Atacama Desert, which can help us fight bacterial resistance.
In addition to making contributions in medicine, scientists have also found other ways for bacteria in the Atacama Desert to function. Chilean microbiologist Christina Dorador discovered that desert bacteria can resist high drought and high salinity. By studying these characteristics, it may be helpful to improve plants’ drought resistance and adapt to high-salt environments. The Atacama Desert has strong ultraviolet rays, and the bacteria in the desert can adapt well to this environment. This may help scientists doing cosmetics research and development work to find ways to protect human skin from sun damage.
The bacteria isolated from the soil of the Atacama Desert can not only provide antibiotics, but also provide new types of sun protection and industrial catalysts.
Scientists also believe that some bacteria in the desert also have the potential of industrial biocatalysts. Biocatalysis technology is a technology that uses enzymes, microbial cells or animal and plant cells as biocatalysts for catalytic reactions. Biological catalysts have extremely high catalytic efficiency and reaction speed, which are much higher than chemical catalysts. The backbone of Chile’s economy is the copper mines in the Atacama Desert. If these bacteria are used to extract copper from copper ore, it is bound to promote the development of this industry. In addition, because the environment of the Atacama Desert is similar to that of Mars, scientists have been using this desert to study Mars and explore the possible life on Mars through the bacteria in the desert.
There are far more types and numbers of microorganisms in the Atacama Desert than we thought. Scientists believe that they only found about 1% of them. Nevertheless, these known types of microorganisms have so much help to humans. And if we learn more about the microorganisms in this desert, we will probably benefit more. Perhaps in the future, more effective and safer antibiotics will come from this desert.