One of many hydrothermal vents in Dallol showcasing the vibrant colours of inorganic precipitates

Search for clues to how life survives in one of the hottest places on Earth

Yvette Eley taking a water sample


In January 2019, Yvette Eley and Tom Dunkley Jones travelled to Ethiopia for fieldwork funded by the Europlanet Consortium, a body formed in 2013 that originally emerged from the collaboration between scientists involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission. Eley received a Transnational Access grant (worth approximately €20,000) from Europlanet in June 2018 to collect samples from the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, a key Mars analogue site and one of the hottest places on Earth with annual temperatures on average 34 ºC and daily temperatures capable of exceeding 50 ºC.

Eley and Dunkley Jones focused on sampling precipitate minerals surrounding hydrothermal vent systems in the main volcanic area of Dallol, as these may contain clues to the metabolic adaptions that any microbes living in this inhospitable landscape use for their survival. In particular, Eley plans to analyse long-lived organic chemicals from the cells of these microbes that are preserved in the precipitates, as these ‘biomarkers’ can survive over geologic timescales and provide insights into microbial adaptations to environmental perturbations in Earth’s past. The team also sampled water from a range of vents, pools and lakes in the region, and plan to use a suite of geochemical analyses to try to determine whether they are all fed by the same groundwater sources.