Meet the microbiologists studying one of the most extreme environments on Earth.
In January 2019, a team of microbiologists at theFrench National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), led by Purificación López-García set out to explore environments that had never been studied before, in the deepest parts of the Danakil depression in Ethiopia. Hours in helicopters was required for the scientists to collect samples on isolated islands in the middle of soups of salt, at the bottom of inhospitable craters, or on the shores of multi-coloured mudflats.
The Danakil depression is a salt desert at the crossroads of three tectonic plates on the East African rift. Intense volcanic and hydrothermal activity occurs there, and shapes the hottest place on the planet. The region is often viewed as similar to the planet Mars, therefore it is an ideal place to research the physical and chemical limits of life on Earth.
Satellite images had to be carefully analysed and many overflights were conducted before finding the right zones to study. A seasoned pilot hired by the team circled the Danakil region looking for the safest places to land, as a helicopter was the only safe way to gain access to the site.
Filled with excitement and curiosity, the team disembarked with a plethora of measuring instruments and sampling tools. They sunk into mud and in tepid hyper-salted water, as well as walking on chaotic and sharp flows under the harsh heat of the desert, 120 metres below sea level.
For two weeks, the photographer Olivier Grunewald and the journalist Bernadette Gilbertas were part of this expedition. The scientists uncovered interesting discoveries while they were still on site: they found stromatolites, microorganisms which are known for building very old rock deposits. It was the first time such formations had been reported in Danakil and their discovery may be the largest one to date.
These samples were then taken back to laboratories in order to study the traces of life hidden in the mysterious landscapes of the Danakil depression.
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