Microbes at the top of the world

Updated - April 22, 2023 10:53 pm IST

Published - April 22, 2023 09:15 pm IST

A cosmopolitan human signature is seen in the microbes collected at South Col on Mount Everest.

A cosmopolitan human signature is seen in the microbes collected at South Col on Mount Everest. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

An article, Genetic analysis of the frozen microbiome at 7,900 metres above sea level on the South Col of Sagarmatha (Mount Everest), by Dr. N.B. Dragone and others in journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research examines the human microbiota on the inhospitable slopes of Mount Everest.

They were able to collect microbial communities in sediment samples left by human climbers on the South Col of Mount Everest, 7,900 metres above sea level (msl).

The South Col is the ridge which separates Mt. Everest from Lhotse — the fourth highest mountain on earth. The two peaks are only three kilometres apart. At 7,900 msl, the South Col is rather inhospitable — a heat wave in July 2022 led to a record high temperature of minus 1.4 degree Celsius.

Barring humans, visible signs of life have been left behind. The last visible residents are seen at 6,700 msl — a few species of moss and a jumping spider that feeds on frozen insects carried by the wind.

At high altitudes, there is low oxygen (7.8% against 20.9% at sea level), strong winds, temperature usually below minus 15 degree Celsius, and high levels of UV radiation. All these make life processes difficult. And as there is an interdependence among species of all sizes in all ecosystems, even microbes cannot sustain themselves.

Wind and humans

But microbes keep arriving, carried by either birds, animals, or winds. Up to about 6,000 msl, dust particles, less than 20 micrometre in diameter, are blown in by the winds. Some of this dust originates in the Sahara Desert, which explains why a wide range of microflora are found at these altitudes. Above 7,000 msl, it is mostly winds and humans that act as carriers.

Using sophisticated methods such as 16S and 18S rRNA sequencing, the microbe hunters were able to identify the bacteria and other microorganisms found on the South Col. A cosmopolitan human signature is seen in the microbes collected here. Also found are modestobacter altitudinis and the fungus, naganishia, which are known to be UV-resistant survivors. 

Who gave the name ‘sagarmatha’ to Mt. Everest? Nepal’s eminent historian, late Baburam Acharya, gave it the Nepali name, sagarmatha, in the 1960s. 

Kangchenjunga peak

In 1847, Andrew Waugh, British Surveyor General of India, found a peak in the eastern end of the Himalayas which was higher than the Kangchenjunga — considered as the highest peak in the world at that time. His predecessor, Sir George Everest, was interested in high-altitude hills and had deputed Waugh to take charge. In true colonial spirit, Waugh called it the Mount Everest. 

The Indian mathematician and surveyor, Radhanath Sikdar, was an able mathematician. He was the first person to show that Mount Everest (then known as peak XV) was the world’s highest peak. George Everest had appointed Sikdar to the post of ‘Computer’ in the Survey of India in 1831.

In 1852, Sikdar, with the help of a special device, recorded the height of ‘Peak 15’ at 8,839 metres. However, it was officially announced in March 1856.

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