Multiplication of microbes below 0.690 water activity: implications for terrestrial and extraterrestrial life

Andrew Stevenson, Jürgen Burkhardt, Charles S Cockell, Jonathan A Cray, Jan Dijksterhuis, Mark Fox-Powell, Terence P Kee, Gerhard Kminek, Terry J McGenity, Kenneth N Timmis, David J Timson, Mary A Voytek, Frances Westall, Michail M Yakimov, John E Hallsworth

    Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

    128 Citations (Scopus)


    Since a key requirement of known life forms is available water (water activity; aw ), recent searches for signatures of past life in terrestrial and extraterrestrial environments have targeted places known to have contained significant quantities of biologically available water. However, early life on Earth inhabited high-salt environments, suggesting an ability to withstand low water-activity. The lower limit of water activity that enables cell division appears to be ∼ 0.605 which, until now, was only known to be exhibited by a single eukaryote, the sugar-tolerant, fungal xerophile Xeromyces bisporus. The first forms of life on Earth were, though, prokaryotic. Recent evidence now indicates that some halophilic Archaea and Bacteria have water-activity limits more or less equal to those of X. bisporus. We discuss water activity in relation to the limits of Earth's present-day biosphere; the possibility of microbial multiplication by utilizing water from thin, aqueous films or non-liquid sources; whether prokaryotes were the first organisms able to multiply close to the 0.605-aw limit; and whether extraterrestrial aqueous milieux of ≥ 0.605 aw can resemble fertile microbial habitats found on Earth.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)257-77
    Number of pages21
    JournalEnvironmental Microbiology
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015


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