The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is the oldest and most arid nonpolar environment on Earth. It is a coastal desert covering approximately 180,000 km2, and together with the greater Atacama region it comprises a dramatically wide range of ecological niches. Long known and exploited for its mineral resources, the Atacama Desert harbors a rich microbial diversity that has only recently been discovered; the great majority of it has not yet been recovered in culture or even taxonomically identified. This review traces the progress of microbiology research in the Atacama and dispels the popular view that this region is virtually devoid of life. We examine reasons for such research activity and demonstrate that microbial life is the latest recognized and least explored resource in this inspiring biome.


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