Cesar Marin

Dr. César Marín

Oriana Mora Rodriguez

Faviola Gonzalez

Francisco Mondaca

SPUN team
Adriana Corrales

Dr. Adriana Corrales


Dr. Daniela Soto-Hernandez


Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños

photography & video

Mateo Barrenengoa & Diego Fuentes

As part of a long-term partnership with the Council of Atacameño Peoples (CPA), SPUN and the CPA undertook an expedition many months in the making—the Atacama Desert.

This desert gets the least precipitation of any on Earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s a barren land. Springing from its soils are many extremophilic plants that thrive in harsh conditions, and people who care for the land, protect it, and live off what it provides.

The SPUN team started in San Pedro de Atacama, where we were joined by longtime collaborator Dr. César Marín, a soil and mycorrhizal ecologist  at Universidad Santo Tomás de Chile. Together, we went to Socaire to give a community workshop about mycorrhizal fungi and climate change to the CPA’s environmental unit and other community members. The presentations culminated with a soil sampling demonstration, in which SPUN shared protocols and methods for sampling mycorrhizal fungi.

The group then traveled to the “fruit forests” of Toconao. Here, bright green trees appear like oases in the desert. Large chañar trees are interspersed with apricot, pear, and quince trees, yielding fruit that has made the region famous. These forests use community-managed, traditional flooding irrigation, in which a series of canals, some of which are nearly 1000 years old, are flooded every few weeks, providing an infusion of water to the trees.

​The, Atacameño people, also known as the Lickanantay, aren’t just known for their delicious fruits, but also for their corn and alfalfa. These crops are grown in melgas, a traditional cultivation practice where crops are grown on small strips of land and on vertical terraces.

As the team headed out to sample in the desert, our Atacameño research partners taught us the importance of asking the land permission before taking soil samples, not only to be respectful but also to allow the land to open and to ensure a safe sampling process. At each sampling site they performed a ritual and gave an offering to Mother Earth.

The Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile. Here, the soils have so much salt that it forms a thick crust on the ground, and salt crystals sparkle on the leaves of the plants who live there.

A favorite plant (and snack) of the field team was cachiyuyo – an edible plant that thrives in salty soils.

In these ecosystems, cachiyuyo comes along early in stages of ecological succession and is often one of the first plants to grow after an environmental disturbance. This makes knowing its mycorrhizal partners a crucial piece in understanding how these desert ecosystems thrive.

Above the Salar and the fruit forests lies one of the most iconic ecosystems of the Andes, the South American Puna. Samples were collected as high as 4500 meters elevation, and the team joined the traditional indigenous practice of chewing coca leaves to stave off altitude sickness. The researchers carefully lifted puffy cushion plants from the ground and sampled the carbon-packed dark black soil underneath. The area is rich in sulfur and other minerals, and the soil had a strong, metallic smell. 

As we drove to our sampling sites, the landscape was dotted with wild vicuñas, running with mountain silhouettes behind them.

Thanks to our partnership with the CPA, SPUN is able to understand the Atacama Desert, and the process of sampling in areas with high aridity, differently. Equally, through a continued partnership with the CPA, we will be able to provide our collaborators with information about which mycorrhizal fungi support their crops. We hope to identify new species that are specially adapted to live in these high-altitude drylands and soils with high salt and sulfur content.