Survivability of Anhydrobiotic Cyanobacteria in Salty Ice: Implications for the Habitability of Icy Worlds

Life (Basel). 2019 Nov 22;9(4):86. doi: 10.3390/life9040086.


Two anhydrobiotic strains of the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiopsis, namely CCMEE 029 and CCMEE 171, isolated from the Negev Desert in Israel and from the Dry Valleys in Antarctica, were exposed to salty-ice simulations. The aim of the experiment was to investigate the cyanobacterial capability to survive under sub-freezing temperatures in samples simulating the environment of icy worlds. The two strains were mixed with liquid solutions having sub-eutectic concentration of Na2SO4, MgSO4 and NaCl, then frozen down to different final temperatures (258 K, 233 K and 203 K) in various experimental runs. Both strains survived the exposure to 258 K in NaCl solution, probably as they migrated in the liquid veins between ice grain boundaries. However, they also survived at 258 K in Na2SO4 and MgSO4-salty-ice samples-that is, a temperature well below the eutectic temperature of the solutions, where liquid veins should not exist anymore. Moreover, both strains survived the exposure at 233 K in each salty-ice sample, with CCMEE 171 showing an enhanced survivability, whereas there were no survivors at 203 K. The survival limit at low temperature was further extended when both strains were exposed to 193 K as air-dried cells. The results suggest that vitrification might be a strategy for microbial life forms to survive in potentially habitable icy moons, for example in Europa's icy crust. By entering a dried, frozen state, they could be transported from niches, which became non-habitable to new habitable ones, and possibly return to metabolic activity.

Keywords: Europa; desert cyanobacteria; habitability; ice crystals; icy moons; laboratory simulations; liquid veins; vitrification.