Abstract: We have explored the use of optical oxygen electrodes to study oxygenic photosynthesis and heterotrophic activities in crystallizer brines of the salterns in Eilat, Israel. Monitoring oxygen uptake rates in the dark enables the identification of organic substrates that are preferentially used by the community. Addition of glycerol (the osmotic solute synthesized by Dunaliella) or dihydroxyacetone (produced from glycerol by Salinibacter) enhanced respiration rates. Pyruvate, produced from glycerol or from some sugars by certain halophilic Archaea also stimulated community respiration. Fumarate had a sparing effect on respiration, possibly as many halophilic Archaea can use fumarate as a terminal electron acceptor in respiration. Calculating the photosynthetic activity of Dunaliella by monitoring oxygen concentration changes during light/dark incubations is not straightforward as light also affects respiration of some halophilic Archaea and Bacteria due to action of light-driven proton pumps. When illuminated, community respiration of brine samples in which oxygenic photosynthesis was inhibited by DCMU decreased by ~40%. This effect was interpreted as the result of competition between two energy yielding systems: the bacteriorhodopsin proton pump and the respiratory chain of the prokaryotes. These findings have important implications for the interpretation of other published data on photosynthetic and respiratory activities in hypersaline environments.
Abstract: A long-standing problem for the origins of life is that polymerization of many biopolymers, including nucleic acids and peptides, is thermodynamically unfavourable in aqueous solution. If bond making and breaking is reversible, monomers and very short oligomers predominate. Recent experiments have shown that wetting and drying cycles can overcome this problem and drive the formation of longer polymers. In the dry phase, bond formation is favourable, but diffusion is restricted, and bonds only form between monomers that are initially close together. In the wet phase, some of the bonds are hydrolyzed. However, repositioning of the molecules allows new bonds to form in the next dry phase, leading to an increase in mean polymer length. Here, we consider a simple theoretical model that explains the effect of cycling. There is an equilibrium length distribution with a high mean length that could be achieved if diffusion occurred freely in the dry phase. This equilibrium is inaccessible without diffusion. A single dry cycle without diffusion leads to mean lengths much shorter than this. Repeated cycling leads to a significant increase in polymerization relative to a single cycle. In the most favourable case, cycling leads to the same equilibrium length distribution as would be achieved if free diffusion were possible in the dry phase. These results support the RNA World scenario by explaining a potential route to synthesis of long RNAs; however, they also imply that cycling would be beneficial to the synthesis of other kinds of polymers, including peptides, where bond formation involves a condensation reaction.
Abstract: We used Ar plasma-sterilization at a temperature below 80 °C to examine its effects on the viability of microorganisms when intermixed with tested soil. Due to a relatively low temperature, this method is not thought to affect the properties of a soil, particularly its organic component, to a significant degree. The method has previously been shown to work well on spacecraft parts. The selected microorganism for this test was Deinococcus radiodurans R1, which is known for its remarkable resistance to radiation effects. Our results showed a reduction in microbial counts after applying a low temperature plasma, but not to a degree suitable for a sterilization of the soil. Even an increase of the treatment duration from 1.5 to 45 min did not achieve satisfying results, but only resulted in in a mean cell reduction rate of 75% compared to the untreated control samples.
Abstract: Charles Darwin’s original intuition that life began in a “warm little pond” has for the last three decades been eclipsed by a focus on marine hydrothermal vents as a venue for abiogenesis. However, thermodynamic barriers to polymerization of key molecular building blocks and the difficulty of forming stable membranous compartments in seawater suggest that Darwin’s original insight should be reconsidered. I will introduce the terrestrial origin of life hypothesis, which combines field observations and laboratory results to provide a novel and testable model in which life begins as protocells assembling in inland fresh water hydrothermal fields. Hydrothermal fields are associated with volcanic landmasses resembling Hawaii and Iceland today and could plausibly have existed on similar land masses rising out of Earth’s first oceans. I will report on a field trip to the living and ancient stromatolite fossil localities of Western Australia, which provided key insights into how life may have emerged in Archaean, fluctuating fresh water hydrothermal pools, geological evidence for which has recently been discovered. Laboratory experimentation and fieldwork are providing mounting evidence that such sites have properties that are conducive to polymerization reactions and generation of membrane-bounded protocells. I will build on the previously developed coupled phases scenario, unifying the chemical and geological frameworks and proposing that a hydrogel of stable, communally supported protocells will emerge as a candidate Woese progenote, the distant common ancestor of microbial communities so abundant in the earliest fossil record.
Abstract: Prof. Hans Georg Trüper, one of the most important scientists in the field of halophile research, passed away on 9 March 2016 at the age of 79. I here present a brief obituary with special emphasis on Prof. Trüper’s contributions to our understanding of the halophilic prokaryotes and their adaptations to life in hypersaline environments. He has pioneered the study of the halophilic anoxygenic phototrophic sulfur bacteria of the Ectothiorhodospira—Halorhodospira group. Some of the species he and his group isolated from hypersaline and haloalkaline environments have become model organisms for the study of the mechanisms of haloadaptation: the functions of three major organic compounds – glycine betaine, ectoine, and trehalose – known to serve as “compatible solutes” in halophilic members of the Bacteria domain, were discovered during studies of these anoxygenic phototrophs. Prof. Trüper’s studies of hypersaline alkaline environments in Egypt also led to the isolation of the first known extremely halophilic archaeon (Natronomonaspharaonis). The guest editors dedicate this special volume of Life to the memory of Prof. Hans Georg Trüper.