Exploring the Boundaries of Microbial Habitability in Soil

Nicholas B. Dragone, Melisa A. Diaz, Ian D. Hogg, W. Berry Lyons, W. Andrew Jackson, Diana H. Wall, Byron J. Adams, Noah Fierer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Microbes are widely assumed to be capable of colonizing even the most challenging terrestrial surface environments on Earth given enough time. We would not expect to find surface soils uninhabited by microbes as soils typically harbor diverse microbial communities and viable microbes have been detected in soils exposed to even the most inhospitable conditions. However, if uninhabited soils do exist, we might expect to find them in Antarctica. We analyzed 204 ice-free soils collected from across a remote valley in the Transantarctic Mountains (84–85°S, 174–177°W) and were able to identify a potential limit of microbial habitability. While most of the soils we tested contained diverse microbial communities, with fungi being particularly ubiquitous, microbes could not be detected in many of the driest, higher elevation soils—results that were confirmed using cultivation-dependent, cultivation-independent, and metabolic assays. While we cannot confirm that this subset of soils is completely sterile and devoid of microbial life, our results suggest that microbial life is severely restricted in the coldest, driest, and saltiest Antarctic soils. Constant exposure to these conditions for thousands of years has limited microbial communities so that their presence and activity is below detectable limits using a variety of standard methods. Such soils are unlikely to be unique to the studied region with this work supporting previous hypotheses that microbial habitability is constrained by near-continuous exposure to cold, dry, and salty conditions, establishing the environmental conditions that limit microbial life in terrestrial surface soils.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2020JG006052
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • antarctica
  • astrobiology
  • bacteria
  • extremophiles
  • fungi
  • soils


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