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Life in deadly conditions

Archaea, small single-celled organisms, are particularly interesting for scientists because they are able to live under extreme environmental conditions, for instance under high salt concentrations, high pH-values, or high temperatures. Nature's masters of adaptation, they are model organisms from which researchers can draw conclusions about the first organisms on earth. The scientists studied mechanisms that make survival possible for the single-celled organisms, which are rod-shaped and are only five hundredths of a millimetre in size. At the Department of Membrane Biochemistry, led by Professor Dieter Oesterhelt, Max Planck researchers have shown, using genomic and proteomic methods combined with physiological experiments, how to explain the amazing abilities of these extreme organisms.

Friedhelm Pfeiffer, the research group's bioinformatics expert, created a database for halophile (Greek "salt-lovers") archaea, called HaloLex (see link below). Using the database, genetic and protein data about the organisms is tied to information about their structure and function. The newest genome on HaloLex is now that of Natronomonas pharaonis, whose genetic information was made available by Michaela Falb, Friedhelm Pfeiffer, Peter Palm, Karin Rodewald, Volker Hickmann, Jrg Tittor and Dieter Oesterhelt. This information is made of some 2.6 million base pairs (about one thousandth of the human genome), and encodes the synthesis of 2,843 proteins.

Natronomonas pharaonis has to deal with two different kinds of life-threatening conditions. It was found in pools which are strongly alkaline (pH-value of about 11) with an extremely high salt concentration (over 300 grams of salt per litre of water). The high pH-values are about the same as lye soap and the salt content that of the Dead Sea. As far as the salt content is concerned, Natronomonas pharaonis behaves like closely related organisms - for example, Halobacterium salinarum, the "house pet" of Dieter Oesterhel
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Contact: Eva-Maria Diehl, Public Relations
diehl@biochem.mpg.de
49-89-8578-2824
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
17-Oct-2005


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