Energetic basis of microbial growth and persistence in desert ecosystems

Pok Man Leung, Sean K. Bay, Dimitri V. Meier, Eleonora Chiri, Don A. Cowan, Osnat Gillor, Dagmar Woebken, Chris Greening

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)


Microbial life is surprisingly abundant and diverse in global desert ecosystems. In these environments, microorganisms endure a multitude of physico-chemical stresses, including low water potential, carbon and nitrogen starvation, and extreme temperatures. In this review, we summarize our current understanding of the energetic mechanisms and trophic dynamics that underpin microbial function in desert ecosystems. Accumulating evidence suggests that dormancy is a common strategy that facilitates microbial survival in response to water and carbon limitation. Whereas photoautotrophs are restricted to specific niches in extreme deserts, metabolically versatile heterotrophs persist even in the hyper-arid topsoils of the Atacama Desert and Antarctica. At least three distinct strategies appear to allow such microorganisms to conserve energy in these oligotrophic environments: degradation of organic energy reserves, rhodopsin- and bacteriochlorophyll-dependent light harvesting, and oxidation of the atmospheric trace gases hydrogen and carbon monoxide. In turn, these principles are relevant for understanding the composition, functionality, and resilience of desert ecosystems, as well as predicting responses to the growing problem of desertification.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00495-19
Number of pages14
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • Desert
  • Dormancy
  • Energetics
  • Energy reserve
  • Photosynthesis
  • Trace gas

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