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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Apr 27;107(17):7835-40. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1000557107. Epub 2010 Apr 19.

Solutes determine the temperature windows for microbial survival and growth.

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  • 1School of Biological Sciences, Medical Biology Centre, Queen's University, Belfast BT9 7BL, Northern Ireland.


Microbial cells, and ultimately the Earth's biosphere, function within a narrow range of physicochemical conditions. For the majority of ecosystems, productivity is cold-limited, and it is microbes that represent the failure point. This study was carried out to determine if naturally occurring solutes can extend the temperature windows for activity of microorganisms. We found that substances known to disorder cellular macromolecules (chaotropes) did expand microbial growth windows, fungi preferentially accumulated chaotropic metabolites at low temperature, and chemical activities of solutes determined microbial survival at extremes of temperature as well as pressure. This information can enhance the precision of models used to predict if extraterrestrial and other hostile environments are able to support life; furthermore, chaotropes may be used to extend the growth windows for key microbes, such as saprotrophs, in cold ecosystems and man-made biomes.

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