The unimaginably arid conditions of South America's Atacama Desert have mad it the perfect scientific stand-in for Mars. So in a place that is quite literally almost alien, it makes sense we'd find microbes as strange as these.
Specifically, researchers have found microbes inside some of the region's volcanoes, which are incredibly dry even by the already ludicrous standards of the Atacama. Fungi and bacteria have been found in the recently collected soil samles, but of greatest interest are the least complex of the organisms, the archaea. Those found in the Atacama volcanoes seem to have evolved a way of converting energy - one of the most basic processes an organism undertakes - in a way unlike any other known species.
Study member Ryan Lynch of Colorado University explains the finding:
"We haven't formally identified or characterized the species. But these are very different than anything else that has been cultured. Genetically, they're at least 5 percent different than anything else in the DNA database of 2.5 million sequences."
The conditions on these volcanoes is hard to imagine. While most arid mountain ecosystems are replenished by the occasional influx of ice, these volcanoes have been free of ice for the last 48,000 years. It's created a biosphere of only about twenty some species that have managed to hang on for all that time. That's an incredibly small number of species, and those that have made it this long have had to come up with some very strange solutions to adapt and survive.
Specifically, the archaea don't use photosynthesis to convert sunlight into usable energy, as most of their counterparts around the world do. Instead, the best the researchers have come up with is that the organisms manage to harvest energy and carbon from the trace amounts of gases like carbon monoxide and dimethylsulfide that blow through the area. Even there, these gases are in short supply, but over time there's just enough for the microbes to survive...and thrive, at least by the standards of the Atacama volcanoes.