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Physicochemical Salt Solution Parameters Limit the Survival of Planococcus halocryophilus in Martian Cryobrines

Waajen, Annemiek C.; Heinz, Jacob; Airo, Alessandro; Schulze-Makuch, Dirk

Microorganisms living in sub-zero environments can benefit from the presence of dissolved salts, as they significantly increase the temperature range of liquid water by lowering the freezing point. However, high concentrations of salts can reduce microbial growth and survival, and can evoke a physiological stress response. It remains poorly understood how the physicochemical parameters of brines (e.g. water activity, ionic strength, solubility and hydration shell strength between the ions and the surrounding water molecules) influence the survival of microorganisms. We used the cryo− and halotolerant bacterial strain Planococcus halocryophilus as a model organism to evaluate the degree of stress different salts assert. Cells were incubated in liquid media at −15°C containing single salts at eutectic concentrations (CaCl2, LiCl, LiI, MgBr2, MgCl2, NaBr, NaCl, NaClO4 and NaI). Four of these salts (LiCl, LiI, MgBr2 and NaClO4) were also investigated at concentrations with a low water activity (0.635) and, separately, with a high ionic strength (8 mol/L). Water activity of all solutions was measured at −15°C. This is the first time that water activity has been measured for such a large number of liquid salt solutions at constant sub-zero temperatures (−15°C). Colony-Forming Unit (CFU) counts show that the survival of P. halocryophilus has a negative correlation with the salt concentration, molecular weight of the anion and anion radius; and a positive correlation with the water activity and anions’ hydration shell strength. The survival of P. halocryophilus did not show a significant correlation with the ionic strength, the molecular weight of the cation, the hydrated and unhydrated cation and hydrated anion radius, and the cations’ hydration bond length. Thus, the water activity, salt concentration and anion parameters play the largest role in the survival of P. halocryophilus in concentrated brines. These findings improve our understanding of the limitations of microbial life in saline environments, which provides a basis for better evaluation of the habitability of extraterrestrial environments such as Martian cryobrines.
Published in: Frontiers in Microbiology, 10.3389/fmicb.2020.01284, Frontiers Media S.A.