Ecological significance of compatible solute accumulation by micro-organisms: from single cells to global climate


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The osmoadaptation of most micro-organisms involves the accumulation of K+ ions and one or more of a restricted range of low molecular mass organic solutes, collectively termed ‘compatible solutes’. These solutes are accumulated to high intracellular concentrations, in order to balance the osmotic pressure of the growth medium and maintain cell turgor pressure, which provides the driving force for cell extension growth. In this review, I discuss the alternative roles which compatible solutes may also play as intracellular reserves of carbon, energy and nitrogen, and as more general stress metabolites involved in protection of cells against other environmental stresses including heat, desiccation and freezing. Thus, the evolutionary selection for the accumulation of a specific compatible solute may not depend solely upon its function during osmoadaptation, but also upon the secondary benefits its accumulation provides, such as increased tolerance of other environmental stresses prevalent in the organism's niche or even anti-herbivory or dispersal functions in the case of dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP). In the second part of the review, I discuss the ecological consequences of the release of compatible solutes to the environment, where they can provide sources of compatible solutes, carbon, nitrogen and energy for other members of the micro-flora. Finally, at the global scale the metabolism of specific compatible solutes (betaines and DMSP) in brackish water, marine and hypersaline environments may influence global climate, due to the production of the trace gases, methane and dimethylsulfide (DMS) and in the case of DMS, also couple the marine and terrestrial sulfur cycles.