While the desert seems to be an inhospitable place, in reality it contains a multitude of diverse microorganisms. Many of these microorganisms live in the crust, the top several mm to cm of soil. In this environment, organisms survive high levels of UV irradiation with very little water. I am interested in ‘how microorganisms can live in such an environment?’.
Much of what is known about desiccation resistance comes from the Class Deinococci. Deinococcus radiodurans, the most famous member of the Class, was initially isolated from a can of spoiled meat that had been irradiated for sterilization. D. radiodurans has been shown to withstand 500,000 rads of radiation and still maintain the viability of some cells (Mattimore & Battista, 1996. J. Bacteriol. 178:633-637). PFGE was used to analyze the effect of irradiation on the genome – the results showed the breakdown of the full length genome, approximately 3 Mbp in length, into small fragments estimated to be 50 kbp. Over time, the wild-type irradiated organisms were shown to rebuild a full-length functional, stable, genome from these fragments (Harris et al., 2004. PLoS Biol. 2: e304:1629-1639). Our overriding question is: does the mechanism that allows D. radiodurans to survive irradiation occur in organisms present in the desert crust?