Extremophiles: photosynthetic systems in a high-altitude saline basin (Altiplano, Chile)


1 Centro de Investigación de Medio Ambiente (CENIMA), Universidad Arturo Prat, Casilla 121, Iquique, Chile

2 Departamento de Ciencias Ecológicas, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile


Studies of different hypersaline systems have revealed various types of limitation. We evaluated the phototrophic microbial assemblages over a whole seasonal cycle (wet vs dry) in the Salar de Alconcha, a high-altitude (4250 m altitude) saline basin. Phototrophic microbial communities were obtained from contrasting ecotypes, and examined for the effects of proximity and salinity variations. We also analyzed pigment profiles pointing to photosynthetic activity. While taxonomic diversity was limited to three algal groups (chlorophytes, diatoms, and cyanobacteria) ecological preferences were highly variable. Physical limitations when the photosynthetic system turn drier (maintaining viability and stability) appear to be the most successful adaptation (constrained assemblages) to the extreme condition in the Altiplano. This suggests that phototrophic microorganisms rarely achieve optimal growth, and could only do so when rain events reduce salinity (e.g. austral summer). However, environmental condition over the salt crust (total salt concentration: 119.74 g l−1) was an important driver to algal biomass. Overall, dominated by Dunaliella salina (≈18,000 cell ml−1) turning the water into a red–orange colored system (β-carotene); aplanospore cysts were observed only during the driest season (austral winter). Our results suggest specific restrictive environments (e.g. environmental dissimilarity in the physical landscape) for phototrophic microbial colonization in high-altitude saline systems quite dependent upon water availability (system on the edge). The present study is a contribution for a better understanding of both the ecology of extreme environments and polyextremophiles communities (phototrophs) that inhabit them. Active salars are considered to be useful analogs of ancient photosynthetic systems, currently very pressured by groundwater extraction. Thus, altering the volume of water through the basin would have negative consequences on the structure and dynamics of local communities, and also in the stability of ecosystem functions.