Many of the world's most arid deserts harbour surprisingly diverse communities of heterotrophic bacteria. These organisms persist in surface soils under extreme climatic conditions, despite lacking obvious energy inputs from phototrophic primary producers. A longstanding conundrum has been how these communities sustain enough energy to maintain their diversity and biomass. We recently helped to resolve this conundrum by demonstrating that some desert communities are structured by a minimalistic mode of chemosynthetic primary production, where atmospheric trace gases, not sunlight, serve as the main energy sources. These findings are supported by pure culture studies that suggest atmospheric trace gases are dependable energy sources for the long-term survival of dormant soil bacteria. We predict that atmospheric trace gases may be a major energy source for desert ecosystems worldwide.