It's nicknamed the "Gateway to Hell," and that's not an exaggeration. Ethiopia's Danakil Depression lies at the triple junction of three tectonic plates, a place where the land is literally being ripped apart by the split between Africa and Asia.
It's arguably the hottest place on Earth, with temperatures recorded as high as 131 degrees Fahrenheit, and that's not even taking into account the heat emanating from the ground, from deadly geothermal springs and lava-spewing volcanoes. To make matters worse, it rarely rains. Oh, and the lakes are filled with acid.
Surely, nothing survives here. Right?
Improbably, researchers looking for life in this barren hellscape have found evidence that two extremophile types of bacteria have made their home in the Danakil Depression, reports the BBC. Somehow, life has found a way.
It was no small feat for researchers to make the discovery. There's the intense heat and the threat of slipping into a scorching pool of acid, sure. But spending any time in Danakil also requires donning gas masks due to the clouds of toxic hydrogen sulphide gas and lung-burning chlorine vapor that choke the air. It took years of planning before researchers felt it was safe enough to brave sample collection.
Organisms were found in two separate locations, one of which was an acidic pool with a zero pH, a new extremophile record. It's the most acidic place where life has been found anywhere on Earth, by a fair margin. In fact, it's such an extreme place that merely referring to these organisms as "extremophiles" doesn't go far enough. These are “polyextremophiles,” capable of living with extreme acidity, high temperatures and high salinity all at once.
The discovery bodes well for the prospect of finding life on other worlds. You could make the case that Danakil is a harder place to live than on Mars or Jupiter's moon Europa, for instance. Scientists hope that by studying extremophiles here on Earth, we might get a glimpse at how life looks elsewhere in the solar system.