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Abstract

Viable extremely halophilic archaea (haloarchaea) have been isolated from million-year-old salt deposits around the world; however, an explanation of their supposed longevity remains a fundamental challenge. Recently small roundish particles in fluid inclusions of 22 000- to 34 000-year-old halite were identified as haloarchaea capable of proliferation (Schubert BA, Lowenstein TK, Timofeeff MN, Parker MA, 2010, Environmental Microbiology, 12, 440–454). Searching for a method to produce such particles in the laboratory, we exposed rod-shaped cells of Halobacterium species to reduced external water activity (aw). Gradual formation of spheres of about 0.4 μm diameter occurred in 4 m NaCl buffer of aw ≤ 0.75, but exposure to buffered 4 m LiCl (aw ≤ 0.73) split cells into spheres within seconds, with concomitant release of several proteins. From one rod, three or four spheres emerged, which re-grew to normal rods in nutrient media. Biochemical properties of rods and spheres were similar, except for a markedly reduced ATP content (about 50-fold) and an increased lag phase of spheres, as is known from dormant bacteria. The presence of viable particles of similar sizes in ancient fluid inclusions suggested that spheres might represent dormant states of haloarchaea. The easy production of spheres by lowering aw should facilitate their investigation and could help to understand the mechanisms for microbial survival over geological times.