Microorganisms in extreme low humidity/water activity (Xerophiles)


Xerophile Definition and Characteristics

  • Xerophiles are a group of extremophiles that are capable of surviving in environments with low availability of water or low water activity.
  • Generally, xerophilic organisms are capable of growing at aw values lower than xerotolerant organisms (aw below 0.8).
  • Two major types of the environment provide habitats for the most xerophilic organisms, namely foods preserved by some form of dehydration or organic solute-promoted lowering of aw and saline lakes, where low aw values are a consequence of inorganic ions.
  • In environments where little water is available, organisms must take up and maintain sufficient water against extreme concentration gradients to support cellular processes.
  • Xerophiles are of different types belonging to different groups of living beings. Xerophilic fungi represent a large group of xerophilic organisms.
  • Eukaryotic organisms like plants capable of surviving at low water condition, called xerophytes are also xerophiles.
  • Xerophiles are closely related to halophiles as halophilic environments tend to have low water activity.
  • Even though water is crucial for many biomolecular processes in living beings, xerophiles have intricate means to survive in conditions with low water activity.

Xerophile Mode of adaptation


  • One of the most common responses of prokaryotes to low water conditions is a reversible form of dormancy.
  • These organisms under a temporary period of dormancy in the form of spores so that they reduce metabolic activity and resume normal metabolism when appropriate conditions are available.
  • The formation of spores and reduction in metabolic activities provide long periods of survival for many microorganisms as well as larger eukaryotes.
Extracellular polysaccharides and biofilm formation

  • Various xerophilic organisms form biofilms as it allows the survival of organisms in habitats with low moisture content.
  • These biofilms consist of microbial aggregates and extracellular polysaccharides produced by those organisms.
  • The extracellular polysaccharides in the biofilms are hydrophilic, which contributes to rapid water absorption rates and restoration of photosynthetic activity.
  • Biofilm formation also reduces the need for large quantities of water as they occupy less space and have less metabolic activities.
Cell membrane

  • The cell membrane of xerophilic organisms tends to have an increased ratio of fatty acids which creates a tighter lipid packing that preserves the membrane during desiccation.
  • Increased cyclopropane fatty acid content in the membrane also reduces the membrane permeability to protons which thus, helps in balancing the intracellular pH.
  • Xerophilic microorganisms adapt to low water activity by increasing the concentration of negatively charged phospholipids that facilitates the preservation of membrane bilayer structural integrity.

  • In the case of xerophytes, a range of proteins that counteract the effects of low water activity is produced.
  • These proteins are rich in glycine and have a highly hydrophobic backbone that transitions into the ordered structure under desiccating conditions, preventing denaturation.
  • Xerophilic cyanobacteria code for various shock response genes on dehydration that regulate the utilization of water in metabolic processes during desiccation.

Xerophile Examples

  • Some common examples of xerophiles are Aspergillus penicillioides, Cereus jamacaru, Deinococcus radiodurans, Aphanothece halophytica, Anabaena, Bradyrhizobium japonicum, Saccharomyces bailli, etc.

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