A novel subaerial Dunaliella species growing on cave spiderwebs in the Atacama Desert

Abstract

Strategies for life adaptation to extreme environments often lead to novel solutions. As an example of this assertion, here we describe the first species of the well-known genus of green unicellular alga Dunaliella able to thrive in a subaerial habitat. All previously reported members of this microalga are found in extremely saline aquatic environments. Strikingly, the new species was found on the walls of a cave located in the Atacama Desert (Chile). Moreover, on further inspection we noticed that it grows upon spiderwebs attached to the walls of the entrance-twilight transition zone of the cave. This peculiar growth habitat suggests that this Dunaliella species uses air moisture condensing on the spiderweb silk threads as a source of water for doing photosynthesis in the driest desert of the world. This process of adaptation recapitulates the transition that allowed land colonization by primitive plants and shows an unexpected way of expansion of the life habitability range by a microbial species.

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Abbreviations

TEM:

Transmission electron microscopy

SEM:

Scanning electron microscopy

CLSM:

Confocal laser scanning microscopy

a.s.l.:

Above sea level

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Millennium Institute of Fundamental and Applied Biology (Chile). We also thank Alejandro Munizaga and Ximena Verges for technical support with microscopy and members of Rafael Vicuña’s Lab for critical comments and insights which helped to improve this manuscript.

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Correspondence to A. Azúa-Bustos.

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Communicated by A. Oren.

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Figure S1.- Relative humidity (RH) profile inside the cave. A two week period is shown. The values were recorded every 10 minutes by an automatic RH microsensor placed between a spiderweb and the cave wall. (TIFF 151 kb)

Figure S2.- Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy (CLSM) micrographs of the cave inhabiting subaerial Dunaliella. A) CLSM micrograph of aqueous suspension of Dunaliella atacamensis cells extracted from the spiderwebs, showing the pyrenoid (p). B) CLSM differential interference contrast (DIC) image merged with the red autofluorescence emitted by the chlorophyll of the cell chloroplast (c). (TIFF 865 kb)

Figure S3.- Absorption spectra of photosynthesis related pigments of the cave inhabiting Dunaliella. The inset shows a picture of chlorophyll a (left) and carotenoid (right) extraction. (TIFF 154 kb)

Supplemental Movie S1 of Dunaliella atacamensis colinized spiderwebs in situ. (AVI 4.61 MB)

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Azúa-Bustos, A., González-Silva, C., Salas, L. et al. A novel subaerial Dunaliella species growing on cave spiderwebs in the Atacama Desert. Extremophiles 14, 443–452 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00792-010-0322-7

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Keywords

  • Dunaliella
  • Atacama Desert
  • Evolution
  • Cave
  • Adaptations
  • Water