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Improbable oasis

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Science  03 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6499, pp. 20-25
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6499.20

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Summary

Deep in Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert, the turquoise-blue pools of Cuatro Ciénegas host ancient microbes and provide a "window into early Earth." The waters of these pools, with a chemistry that resembles that of Earth's ancient seas, are home to unusual bacterial mats and formations called stromatolites. Some of the bacterial lineages in the pools date back to 680 million years ago. Valeria Souza Saldívar and her team have found microbes have evolved unusual adaptations for survival in this extreme environment, which could potentially be used in medicine and agriculture. But this "lost world" has been endangered since the 1970s. The intensive drainage of the precious water to grow alfalfa—a water-intensive crop—for cattle fodder is gradually drying the improbable oasis. The efforts of Souza Saldívar and a multitude of scientists to save this place have paid off. With the help of the conservation nongovernmental organization Pronatura Noreste, a canal that removes 100 million cubic meters of Cuatro Ciénegas's water annually is scheduled to close in the coming weeks. The researchers have also enlisted local high school students to aid in the conservation of the pools and the microscopic life that they host.

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