Most natural environments tend to have lower solute concentrations than the cytoplasm of most microorganisms. Rigid cell walls protect the cells from bursting in a dilute environment. Not much protection is available against high osmotic pressure. In this case, water, following its concentration gradient, flows out of the cell. This results in plasmolysis (the shrinking of the protoplasm away from the intact cell wall) and cell death. This fact explains why brines and layering meat and fish in salt are time-honored methods of preserving food. Microorganisms called halophiles (“salt loving”) actually require high salt concentrations for growth. These organisms are found in marine environments where salt concentrations hover at 3.5%. Extreme halophilic microorganisms, such as the red alga Dunaliella salina and the archaeal species Halobacterium in the image above, grow in hypersaline lakes such as the Great Salt Lake, which is 3.5–8 times saltier than the ocean, and the Dead Sea, which is 10 times saltier than the ocean.
Dunaliella spp. counters the tremendous osmotic pressure of the environment with a high cytoplasmic concentration of glycerol and by actively pumping out salt ions. Halobacterium spp. accumulates large concentrations of K+ and other ions in its cytoplasm. Its proteins are designed for high salt concentrations and lose activity at salt concentrations below 1–2 M. Although most halotolerant organisms, for example Halomonas spp. in salt marshes, do not need high concentrations of salt for growth, they will survive and divide in the presence of high salt. Not surprisingly, the staphylococci, micrococci, and corynebacteria that colonize our skin tolerate salt in their environment. Halotolerant pathogens are an important cause of food-borne illnesses because they survive and multiply in salty food. For example, the halotolerant bacteria S. aureus, Bacillus cereus, and V. cholerae produce dangerous enterotoxins and are major causes of food poisoning.
Microorganisms depend on available water to grow. Available moisture is measured as water activity (aw), which is the ratio of the vapor pressure of the medium of interest to the vapor pressure of pure distilled water; therefore, the aw of water is equal to 1.0. Bacteria require high aw (0.97–0.99), whereas fungi can tolerate drier environments; for example, the range of aw for growth of Aspergillus spp. is 0.8–0.75. Decreasing the water content of foods by drying, as in jerky, or through freeze-drying or by increasing osmotic pressure, as in brine and jams, are common methods of preventing spoilage.
Microorganisms that require high atmospheric pressure for growth are called barophiles. The bacteria that live at the bottom of the ocean must be able to withstand great pressures. Because it is difficult to retrieve intact specimens and reproduce such growth conditions in the laboratory, the characteristics of these microorganisms are largely unknown.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology