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Brine organisms and the question of habitat-specific adaptation

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Among the well-known ultrasaline terrestrial habitats, the Dead Sea in the Jordan Rift Valley and Don Juan Pond in the Upper Wright Valley represent two of the most extreme. The former is a saturated sodium chloride-magnesium sulfate brine in a hot desert, the latter a saturated calcium chloride brine in an Antarctic desert. Both Dead Sea and Don Juan water bodies themselves are limited in microflora, but the saline Don Juan algal mat and muds contain abundant nutrients and a rich and varied microbiota, includingOscillatoria,Gleocapsa,Chlorella, diatoms,Penicillium and bacteria.

In such environments, the existence of an array of specific adaptations is a common, and highly reasonable, presumption, at least with respect to habitat-obligate forms. Nevertheless, many years of ongoing study in our laboratory have demonstrated that lichens (e.g.Cladonia), algae (e.g.Nostoc) and fungi (e.g.Penicillium,Aspergillus) from the humid tropics can sustain metabolism down to −40°C and growth down to −10°C in simulated Dead Sea or Don Juan (or similar) media without benefit of selection or gradual acclimation. Non-selection is suggested in fungi by higher growth rates from vegetative inocula than spores. The importance of nutrient parameters was also evident in responses to potassium and reduced nitrogen compounds.

In view of the saline performance of tropicalNostoc, and its presence in the Antarctic dry valley soils, its complete absence in our Don Juan mat samples was and remains a puzzle.

We suggest that adaptive capability is already resident in many terrestrial life forms not currently in extreme habitats, a possible reflection of evolutionary selection for wide spectrum environmental adaptability.

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Siegel, B.Z., Siegel, S.M., Speitel, T. et al. Brine organisms and the question of habitat-specific adaptation. Origins Life Evol Biosphere 14, 757–770 (1984).

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  • Penicillium
  • Chlorella
  • Nostoc
  • Rift Valley
  • Varied Microbiota