The geological, hydrological and microbiological features of the Salar de Atacama, the most extensive evaporitic sedimentary basin in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, have been extensively studied. In contrast, relatively little attention has been paid to the composition and roles of microbial communities in hypersaline lakes which are a unique feature in the Salar. In the present study biochemical, chemical and molecular biological tools were used to determine the composition and roles of microbial communities in water, microbial mats and sediments along a marked salinity gradient in Laguna Puilar which is located in the "Los Flamencos" National Reserve. The bacterial communities at the sampling sites were dominated by members of the phyla Bacteroidetes, Chloroflexi, Cyanobacteria and Proteobacteria. Stable isotope and fatty acid analyses revealed marked variability in the composition of microbial mats at different sampling sites both horizontally (at different sites) and vertically (in the different layers). The Laguna Puilar was shown to be a microbially dominated ecosystem in which more than 60% of the fatty acids at particular sites are of bacterial origin. Our pioneering studies also suggest that the energy budgets of avian consumers (three flamingo species) and dominant invertebrates (amphipods and gastropods) use minerals as a source of energy and nutrients. Overall, the results of this study support the view that the Salar de Atacama is a heterogeneous and fragile ecosystem where small changes in environmental conditions may alter the balance of microbial communities with possible consequences at different trophic levels.