Life in Moderate and Extreme Environments

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss the distinguishing features of extremophiles

Some organisms have developed strategies that allow them to survive harsh conditions. Almost all prokaryotes have a cell wall, a protective structure that allows them to survive in both hypertonic and hypotonic aqueous conditions. Some soil bacteria are able to form endospores that resist heat and drought, thereby allowing the organism to survive until favorable conditions recur. These adaptations, along with others, allow bacteria to remain the most abundant life form in all terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Prokaryotes thrive in a vast array of environments: Some grow in conditions that would seem very normal to us, whereas others are able to thrive and grow under conditions that would kill a plant or an animal. Bacteria and archaea that are adapted to grow under extreme conditions are called extremophiles, meaning “lovers of extremes.” Extremophiles have been found in all kinds of environments: the depths of the oceans, hot springs, the Arctic and the Antarctic, in very dry places, deep inside Earth, in harsh chemical environments, and in high radiation environments, just to mention a few. Because they have specialized adaptations that allow them to live in extreme conditions, many extremophiles cannot survive in moderate environments.

This micrograph shows an oval Deinococcus about 2.5 microns in diameter cell dividing.

Figure 1. Deinococcus radiodurans, visualized in a false color transmission electron micrograph (credit: modification of work by Michael Daly; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Other extremophiles, like radioresistant organisms, do not prefer an extreme environment (in this case, one with high levels of radiation), but have adapted to survive in it (Figure 1). These are prokaryotes that can tolerate very high doses of ionizing radiation. It has developed DNA repair mechanisms that allow it to reconstruct its chromosome even if it has been broken into hundreds of pieces by radiation or heat. Organisms like these give us a better understanding of prokaryotic diversity and open up the possibility of finding new prokaryotic species that may lead to the discovery of new therapeutic drugs or have industrial applications.

There are many different groups of extremophiles: they are identified based on the conditions in which they grow best, and several habitats are extreme in multiple ways. For example, a soda lake is both salty and alkaline, so organisms that live in a soda lake must be both alkaliphiles and halophiles (Table 1).

Table 1. Extremophiles and Their Preferred Conditions
Extremophile Type Conditions for Optimal Growth
Acidophiles pH 3 or below
Alkaliphiles pH 9 or above
Thermophiles Temperature 60–80 °C (140–176 °F)
Hyperthermophiles Temperature 80–122 °C (176–250 °F)
Psychrophiles Temperature of −15–10 °C (5–50 °F) or lower
Halophiles Salt concentration of at least 0.2 M
Osmophiles High sugar concentration

Prokaryotes in the Dead Sea

One example of a very harsh environment is the Dead Sea, a hypersaline basin that is located between Jordan and Israel. Hypersaline environments are essentially concentrated seawater. In the Dead Sea, the sodium concentration is 10 times higher than that of seawater, and the water contains high levels of magnesium (about 40 times higher than in seawater) that would be toxic to most living things. Iron, calcium, and magnesium, elements that form divalent ions (Fe2+, Ca2+, and Mg2+), produce what is commonly referred to as “hard” water. Taken together, the high concentration of divalent cations, the acidic pH (6.0), and the intense solar radiation flux make the Dead Sea a unique, and uniquely hostile, ecosystem[1] (Figure 2).

Photo A shows the Dead Sea and its accompanying brown shoreline. Micrograph B shows rod-shaped halobacteria.

Figure 2. (a) The Dead Sea is hypersaline. Nevertheless, salt-tolerant bacteria thrive in this sea. (b) These halobacteria cells can form salt-tolerant bacterial mats. (credit a: Julien Menichini; credit b: NASA; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

What sort of prokaryotes do we find in the Dead Sea? The extremely salt-tolerant bacterial mats include Halobacterium, Haloferax volcanii (which is found in other locations, not only the Dead Sea), Halorubrum sodomense, and Halobaculum gomorrense, and the archaea Haloarcula marismortui, among others.

Try It


Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More

  1. Bodaker, I, Itai, S, Suzuki, MT, Feingersch, R, Rosenberg, M, Maguire, ME, Shimshon, B, and others. Comparative community genomics in the Dead Sea: An increasingly extreme environment. The ISME Journal 4 (2010): 399–407, doi:10.1038/ismej.2009.141. published online 24 December 2009.