So, you think life cannot exist in hostile conditions? Think again! We talked of Tardigrades – they are known to survive in super extreme conditions. So, it is very likely that other hostile places on Earth and somewhere else in universe may be teeming with life and we are just not aware of that! For the time being, let us forget universe. Let us think Earth. Danakil Depression located in Ethiopia is considered as Earth’s most hostile place by many scientists and there are scientists who believe that the place may support life!
In order to find out whether life actually exists at this super hostile place or not, a team of researchers have conducted some investigation. This is the first time the place has been explored by scientists and we think, it won’t be the last time.
Findings at Danakil Depression
Before we start talking about the findings, let us understand why the Danakil Depression is considered as Earth’s most hostile place. Well, have you heard of Afro-Arabian rift system? It actually comprises of Arabian, Somalian and Nubian tectonic plates. These three tectonic plates intersect at a point which is known as the Horn of Africa. Here on the Horn of Africa is a place known as Afar Triangle. The Danakil Depression is actually a part of the Afar Triangle.
The exact location of this depression is right between Lake Assal and Dallol Volcano. This depression is at 330 feet or 100 meters below sea level, making it Earth’s one of the lowest places to exist. Okay fine! How does that make the Danakil Depression the most hostile place on earth?
Here is how:
- The depression always maintains highest annual temperature on an average on all of Earth’s surface.
- Walk close enough to the water and you will encounter a temperature which is near boiling point.
- Not just that, the depression is constantly spewing out killer vapors of chlorine and sulfur. These toxic vapors are lethal.
- And not to mention the intersection of the tectonic plates – the place is a hotbed for geological activities.
Isn’t that one of the most hostile places on Earth? Well, now that we know what makes the depression as an ‘ALWAYS AVOID’ destination, let us focus on the findings.
The scientists who investigated the place (of course with proper protective gear in place), found something interesting. There are three different ecosystems that thrive there. The expedition which was spearheaded by Madrid’s Centro de Astrobiologia’s Dr. Felipe Gómez Gómez was conducted in April 2016 (last month). It wasn’t just a freak expedition but was actually meant for Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure. In case you haven’t heard of this name, allow us to give some information. The Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure is actually a group comprising of multiple corporates from multiple nations. The group is very active when it comes to planetary research.
During the research, Dr. Felipe and his team stumbled upon boiling pools. The pools were multicolored, with each color representing different ecosystems. So, what were the different colors? Here they are:
- Sulfur ecosystem represented by yellow color.
- Sulfate minerals ecosystem represented by yellowish-brown color.
- Iron oxide ecosystem represented by the red color.
In two of these ecosystems, the scientists found something interesting. They came across extremely hot water thermal chimneys. The scientists think that these chimneys may be home for thermophilic bacteria.
The field trip to Danakil Depression lasted for 3 days. It started on 5th of April and ended on 7th of April. During this period, the scientists did a number of things, including collection of bacteria samples and tested a new DNA extraction technique.
The 3-day field trip to Danakil Depression had three motives:
- Characterization of regional geology which includes geochemical composition and geomorphology.
- Identifying metabolic environments where bacterial populations might have become isolated.
- Extraction of DNA from bacteria found in the place so that the DNA can be studied to find if any specific metabolic model has been developed by those bacteria to survive in such hostile conditions.
Why is Danakil Depression Expedition Important?
Well, Danakil Depression is one of the most hostile places on planet Earth. Outside Earth, there are similar places right in our Solar System. If the depression’s extreme ecosystems can host life, it can be expected that those places outside Earth also have the possibility of hosting life. For instance, Dr. Felipe says that ecosystems similar to iron-rich ecosystem of the depression can be found on Mars. Again, Europa – Jupiter’s moon is expected to have minerals that are associated with sulfate. So, if life can be found in sulfate-rich ecosystem of the depression, life can exist there too!
Thus, the purpose of this expedition to this extremely hostile place is actually far more profound that what we actually think!
The question now is: will the scientists find life in Danakil Depression? Just for your information, Danakil Depression is close to the place where fossil of Lucy Australopithecus was found. After careful dating of the fossil, scientists concluded that the fossil was 3.2 million years old. That’s the reason why the place goes by the name ‘Cradle of Hominids’. We will not be surprised if scientists do find life in the deadly primordial brew of the Danakil Depression, which may have over time popped up as the first ever hominid to walk this Earth. We will find out about this over time. As of now, we just wait.