The Role of Exopolysaccharides in Microbial Adaptation to Cold Habitats

  • Jody W. DemingEmail author
  • Jodi N. Young


The cellular exterior that a single-celled microorganism presents to its surroundings marks its first line of defense against environmental pressures, from energy deprivation, shifts in ionic strength, and thermal stress to viral and higher-order attack. The extracellular production of complex sugar compounds (extracellular polysaccharides or exopolysaccharides), whether to provide an individual, multipurpose cell coating or be released for consortial arrangements such as biofilm formation, is a hallmark of microbial life in soil, water, and host (plant and animal)-associated environments. The basic features of exopolysaccharides and their functions pertain to all manner of environments and forms of microbial adaptation, regardless of ambient temperature. At very low temperatures, however, where a phase change comes into play, special considerations arise. In this chapter, which represents an update and reframing of previous work [Krembs and Deming (Psychrophiles: from biodiversity to biotechnology. Springer, 2008)], we pay particular attention to the role of microbially produced exopolysaccharides at subfreezing temperatures. Given recent advances, we have kept the focus on sea ice, that frozen yet brine-filled and exopolysaccharide-rich environment where the physical, chemical, and viral challenges present in the space inhabited by microbes greatly influence their ability to survive and evolve. In the last decade, the study of exopolysaccharides in sea ice has advanced on several fronts, from ocean-scale analyses of their microalgal production and iron-storage capacity to biochemical analyses of their novel ice-binding functions in bacteria. The field has thus moved closer to realizing the pervasive importance of exopolysaccharides in very cold environments, including their biogeochemical, evolutionary, and biotechnological potential.



We acknowledge support from NSF (ARC-1203267 to JWD), the UW Astrobiology Program, and the School of Oceanography, through the Karl M. Banse Endowed Professorship (to JWD) and start-up funds (to JNY), to develop this chapter. Numerous colleagues have influenced our thinking, but we especially thank Christopher Krembs, Marcela Ewert, Eric Collins, and Jeff Bowman for their contributions to the study of EPS in the cold and Shelly Carpenter for help with graphics and many EPS measurements over the years.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Oceanography, University of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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