Congreso Futuro and the One Health expedition to the Atacama Desert

In January 2024, a team of scientists led by Lara Urban and Matias Guitierrez, brought a splash of innovation to the driest and highest nonpolar desert on earth - the Atacama in Chile. Their expedition showcased the unique portability of Oxford Nanopore’s disruptive sequencing technology, as they performed in situ genomic sequencing on DNA samples from the rugged terrain. One week later, they presented their findings at Congreso Futuro, illuminating the biodiversity in one of the world’s harshest environments.

What is Congreso Futuro?

Congreso Futuro is one of the most important scientific conferences in Latin America for the free dissemination of knowledge, science, and technology. With over 115 exhibitors from 20 countries, the event sparks international collaboration, and has the aim of fostering a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing humanity.

In-situ sequencing in the Atacama Desert

Guided by the concept of the One Health Initiative, which ‘describes how human health is inextricably linked with environmental health’, Lara and the team used Oxford Nanopore’s MinION device to perform real-time genomic sequencing al fresco. Their goal was to investigate the biodiversity in the Tatio geysers and Atacama salt flats, as well as how human or anthropogenic activity affects it.

DNA samples were obtained from various locations near the town of San Pedro de Atacama, including soil samples, sediments from streams and wetlands, and in the vicinity of geothermal activity.

Performing in situ sequencing offers a multitude of advantages over using large, centralised facilities. For example, transport and storage can degrade DNA samples and lead to biased biodiversity assessments. Furthermore, logistical challenges, whether stemming from geographical constraints or legal regulations, can sometimes impede the research altogether.

Additionally, the rapid insights offered by nanopore sequencing can immediately inform the next steps of a project (such as needing more samples because of between-sample variability), as well as more comprehensive conservation management plans. Lastly, many countries don’t have a centralised sequencing facility. Therefore, portable devices offer a solution to undertake research in these locations.

"Joseph Guillory, Lara Urban and Matias Gutierrez"

The team’s efforts in the Atacama Desert unveiled a diverse abundance of cyanobacteria – photosynthetic bacteria that can absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere. Upon further investigation, the genetic makeup of these bacteria loosely resembled organisms previously identified in the China Sea and Japan, suggesting a possible evolutionary link to a time when the desert lay beneath the sea.

Alternatively, these bacteria might represent an entirely novel species, previously undocumented by science. Leveraging the data produced by Oxford Nanopore’s sequencing technology, the team aims to piece together the genomes of these newfound cyanobacteria, potentially unveiling a species never- before observed in the Atacama Desert or anywhere else in the world.

What’s next for One Health?

This expedition wasn’t Lara’s first venture into the field, and nor will it be her last. She’s previously employed nanopore’s adaptive sampling to monitor the critically endangered kākāpō species in New Zealand, and utilised long nanopore reads and metagenomics to develop a protocol for monitoring air microbiomes.

In a discussion with the team, Mattias raised the possibility of next exploring the biodiversity on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), a remote volcanic Island in Polynesia. Renowned for its enigmatic moai statues, which stand as a testament to the ingenuity of the early Rapa Nui civilisation, the island holds the allure of hidden genetic treasures waiting to be found.

The unique advantages of Oxford Nanopore’s platform, such as portability, and real-time data generation, position the technology ideally to facilitate a wide variety of sequencing scenarios. From monitoring biodiversity in remote areas, to fighting infectious diseases in clinical settings, Oxford Nanopore Technologies are facilitating scientific discovery and change worldwide.

Featured articles: