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Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. Mar 1997; 61(1): 90–104.
PMCID: PMC232602

Evolutionary divergence and salinity-mediated selection in halophilic archaea.


Halophilic (literally salt-loving) archaea are a highly evolved group of organisms that are uniquely able to survive in and exploit hypersaline environments. In this review, we examine the potential interplay between fluctuations in environmental salinity and the primary sequence and tertiary structure of halophilic proteins. The proteins of halophilic archaea are highly adapted and magnificently engineered to function in an intracellular milieu that is in ionic balance with an external environment containing between 2 and 5 M inorganic salt. To understand the nature of halophilic adaptation and to visualize this interplay, the sequences of genes encoding the L11, L1, L10, and L12 proteins of the large ribosome subunit and Mn/Fe superoxide dismutase proteins from three genera of halophilic archaea have been aligned and analyzed for the presence of synonymous and nonsynonymous nucleotide substitutions. Compared to homologous eubacterial genes, these halophilic genes exhibit an inordinately high proportion of nonsynonymous nucleotide substitutions that result in amino acid replacement in the encoded proteins. More than one-third of the replacements involve acidic amino acid residues. We suggest that fluctuations in environmental salinity provide the driving force for fixation of the excessive number of nonsynonymous substitutions. Tinkering with the number, location, and arrangement of acidic and other amino acid residues influences the fitness (i.e., hydrophobicity, surface hydration, and structural stability) of the halophilic protein. Tinkering is also evident at halophilic protein positions monomorphic or polymorphic for serine; more than one-third of these positions use both the TCN and the AGY serine codons, indicating that there have been multiple nonsynonymous substitutions at these positions. Our model suggests that fluctuating environmental salinity prevents optimization of fitness for many halophilic proteins and helps to explain the unusual evolutionary divergence of their encoding genes.

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Selected References

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