The Salar Grande in the Coastal Range of Northern Chile is a fossil evaporitic basin filled with almost pure halite (95% NaCl average). It is assumed that the basin has not received input of brines since the Pliocene (5.3 to 1.8 million years). Below 1 m the halite has remained undissolved since this time, whereas the upper layer has been dissolved and recrystallized by dripping fogs and occasional rainfall. We compared the archaeal community at different depths using both nested PCR and cultivation. The upper 10 cm of halite crust contained diverse haloarchaeal species, including several from new genera, but their provenance is unknown. For samples deeper in the core, a new and rigorous procedure for chemically sterilizing the surface of single halite crystals was developed. These halite crystals contained only species of the genus Halobacterium (Hbt.). Halobacterium salinarum-like sequences were detected by PCR, and evidence that they were from ancient DNA include: comparison with numerous negative controls; detection of 16S rRNA sequence differences in non-conserved regions, indicating genuine evolutionary mutations rather than PCR-cloning artefacts; independent isolation of Hbt. salinarum from ancient halite; and diverse mechanisms possessed by this species for minimizing radiation damage and thus enhancing its potential for long-term survival. Haloarchaea related to Hbt. noricense were obtained from enrichment cultures from ∼0.4 and 15.4 m depth. We investigated Hbt. noricense strain A1 and found that when trapped inside halite crystals its recovery was as rapid after 27 months of entombment as at day 0, faring much better than other extreme halophiles. A biogeographical investigation showed that Hbt. noricense-like organisms were: commonly found in surface-sterilized ancient halite, associated with salt mines, in halite crusts, and, despite a much more intense search, only rarely detected in surface environments. We conclude that some Halobacterium species are specialists at long-term survival in halite.
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