It might sound like a cinematographic Sci-Fi possibility, but it isn’t. It is the result of a study made by scientists from Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, Irvine, and UC Riverside. The primary role in the study was played by the incredible bacteria called Chroococcidiospsis, a cyanobacterium that lives in the desert, which can extract water from rocks.
The beginning of the research
It all started when Wei Huang, a UCI scholar, observed that there was a layered appearance of the bacteria and the anhydrite in the gypsum samples from the Atacama Desert in Chile. Gypsum is known as a sulfate mineral that can form as a hydration product of anhydrite. This attracted the curiosity of scientists who already believed that bacteria might do such a thing as making rocks produce water.
It was the army who financed the study and David Kisailus, the UCI professor of materials science and engineering who conducted the study.
The army interest in the outcome of the research was “to understand how organisms can survive in extreme environments, […] to help translate that to enabling humans to cope with the harshest of conditions, whether it be out in the middle of the desert or while exploring other planets,” Kisailus said.
The study on how bacteria can extract water from rocks
Chroococcidiopsis is a well-known extremophile. Meaning they are bacteria thriving in harsh environments. They love high and low temperatures, high salinity, and even ionizing radiation.
The researchers created two different environments to test the capacity to make a living in a waterless environment. They took samples of rocks from the Atacama Desert and cut them into half-millimeter pieces. Some of them were put in a moist environment and the others in a dry one for 30 days.
The bacteria living in the moist environment didn’t bother to use its superpower and utilized the existing humidity. Not having a choice, the bacteria living in the dry climate had to do it. It produced a biofilm that turned the gypsum into anhydrite. It dissolved into the rock and extracted water.