• Athalassohaline lakes;
  • Cytophaga;
  • DGGE;
  • Extremophiles;
  • Fingerprinting;
  • Haloarchaea;
  • Hypersaline;
  • Proteobacteria;
  • Salar;
  • Salt lake;
  • 16S rDNA


Athalassohaline lakes are inland saline aquatic environments with ionic proportions quite different from the dissolved salts in seawater. Prokaryotes inhabiting athalassohaline environments are poorly known and very few of such places have been surveyed for microbial diversity studies around the world. We analyzed the planktonic bacterial and archaeal assemblages inhabiting several of these evaporitic basins in a remote and vast area in northern Chile by PCR-denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) and sequencing of 16S rRNA gene fragments. Most systems were springs and athalassohaline ponds in different saltflats of the Atacama Desert region, including Salar de Llamará (in the Central Depression), Salar de Atacama (in the Pre-Andean Depression) and Salar de Ascotán (in the Altiplano). Overall, we analyzed more than 25 samples from 19 different environments with strong gradients of altitude, qualitative ionic compositions and UV influence. Between 4 and 25 well-defined DGGE bands were detected for Bacteria in each sample, whereas Archaea ranged between 1 and 5. Predominant DGGE bands (defined by intensity and frequency of appearance) were excised from the gel and sequenced. Bacterial assemblages were dominated by the Cytophaga–Flavobacterium–Bacteroides (CFB) phylum and a few Proteobacteria. There was a tendency for increasing contribution of CFB with higher salinities and altitude. Thus, CFB accounted for the major fraction of band intensity in the Ascotán samples and for lower percentages in Atacama and Llamará. When the distribution of particular CFB sequences was examined, there were several relatives of Psychroflexus torquis substituting each other as salinity changed in Ascotán. Another set of CFB sequences, very distantly related to Cytophaga marinovorus, was abundant in both Llamará and Atacama at salinities lower than 7%. Archaeal assemblages were dominated by uncultured haloarchaea distantly related to cultured strains mostly obtained from thalassohaline environments. Most of the archaeal sequences did not have a close match with environmental 16S rRNA genes deposited in the database either. Therefore, athalassohaline environments are excellent sources of new microorganisms different from their counterparts in thalassohaline sites and useful tools to relate microbial genetic diversity and environmental characteristics such as changes in salinity (both qualitative and quantitative) and altitude.