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Photosynthesis under Rocks: Hypolith Distribution across the Namib Desert Rainfall Gradient

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“Extremophile” is used to describe life that has adapted to extreme conditions and the conditions they live in are often used to understand the limits of life. In locations with low precipitation and high solar radiation, photosynthetic cyanobacteria can colonize

“Extremophile” is used to describe life that has adapted to extreme conditions and the conditions they live in are often used to understand the limits of life. In locations with low precipitation and high solar radiation, photosynthetic cyanobacteria can colonize the underside of quartz fragments, forming ‘hypoliths.’ The quartz provides protection against wind, reduces solar radiation, and slows the rate of evaporation following infrequent rain or fog events. In most desert systems, vascular plants are the main primary producers. However, hypoliths might play a key role in carbon fixation in hyperarid deserts that are mostly devoid of vegetation. I investigated hypolith distribution and carbon fixation at six sites along a rainfall and fog gradient in the central Namib Desert in Namibia. I used line point intersect transects to assess ground cover (bare soil, colonized quartz fragment, non-colonized quartz fragment, non-quartz rock, grass, or lichen) at each site. Additionally, at each site I selected 12 hypoliths and measured cyanobacteria colonization on quartz and measured CO2 flux of hypoliths at five of the six sites.
Ground cover was fairly similar among sites, with bare ground > non-colonized quartz fragments > colonized quartz fragments > non-quartz rocks. Grass was present only at the site with the highest mean annual precipitation (MAP) where it accounted for 1% of ground cover. Lichens were present only at the lowest MAP site, where they accounted for 30% of ground cover. The proportion of quartz fragments colonized generally increased with MAP, from 5.9% of soil covered by colonized hypoliths at the most costal (lowest MAP) site, to 18.7% at the most inland (highest MAP) site. There was CO2 uptake from most hypoliths measured, with net carbon uptake rates ranging from 0.3 to 6.4 μmol m-2 s-1 on well hydrated hypoliths. These carbon flux values are similar to previous work in the Mojave Desert. Our results suggest that hypoliths might play a key role in the fixation of organic carbon in hyperarid ecosystems where quartz fragments are abundant, with MAP constraining hypolith abundance. A better understanding of these extremophiles and the niche they fill could give an understanding of how microbial life might exist in extraterrestrial environments similar to hyperarid deserts.

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2016-12