Haloarchaea: Life at the Brink

Ben Farmer, University of Kentucky

IMG_20180705_150556The problem: What comes to mind when you think of extreme environments? The freezing tundra of Antarctica, or maybe the fiery lava flows of a Hawaiian volcanic zone? Those particularly interested in marine science may think of the deep ocean, perhaps the Marianas Trench. Whichever drastic environment you think of, one fascinating thing ties all of these extremes together: life finds a way to thrive in each of them.

Earth is home to as many as 1 trillion species, and the bulk of them are microbes (Locey and Lennon 2016). Microbes that are adapted to live in conditions that are inhospitable to most life on Earth are called extremophiles. Archaea and bacteria, the two domains of life aside from eukaryotes, represent the majority of extremophiles. While archaea were long thought to be a type of bacteria since the two appear very similar, archaea are more closely related to humans. Archaea are an important model organism because they have forged a niche in just about every habitat imaginable. Hot springs in Yellowstone National Park were among the first locations where archaea were discovered and owe their vibrant colors to these microbes (Oren and Rodriguez-Valera 2001).


Man-made salt pans of Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean, tinged pink by archaea. Halophiles dominate these artificial habitats. Credit: Benjamin van de Water, Flickr, 2009.

Haloarchaea are what I am studying this summer at the College of Charleston. Halo– is a prefix meaning “salt,” and haloarchaea are halophilic, or salt-loving. Perhaps the most famous location that haloarchaea have been found is in the Dead Sea – evidently not so dead after all. Haloarchaea are commonly found in water 10 times as salty as the ocean, in conditions known as hypersaline. Our goal is to investigate what adaptations have made that possible.

We know that the amino acid composition of halophiles is unusually acidic (Martin et al. 1999). Proteins of halophiles are therefore also unusually acidic, which allows their proteins to properly fold in hypersaline conditions. What we do not know is whether the expression of proteins can change at different salinities. Better understanding how proteins are adapted in haloarchaea lends itself to understanding extremophiles on a broader scale.

Mechanisms that allowed microbes to function in seemingly inhospitable environments were likely responsible for evolution of life on Earth (Rampelotto 2010). There are many habitats today that mimic extreme environments from both ancient history and current conditions on other planets, such as Mars. Martian soil is incredibly salty, a result of surface water that evaporated long ago (https://dornsife.usc.edu/labs/laketyrrell/life-in-hypersaline-environments/). Halophiles may have once lived in those hypersaline Martian waters. Therefore, knowledge that we gain about haloarchaea adaptations is valuable to our understanding of life both on Earth and elsewhere.


Many thanks to my mentor, Dr. Matthew Rhodes, who has introduced me to everything from cell culturing to python. This project is funded through the National Science Foundation and supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI- 1757899.



Locey KJ, Lennon JT (2016) Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity. Proc Natl Acad Sci 113:5970–5975

Martin DD, Ciulla R a, Roberts MF (1999) Osmoadaptation in Archaea. Appied Enviromental Microbiol 65:1815–1825

Oren A, Rodriguez-Valera F (2001) The contribution of halophilic Bacteria to the red coloration of saltern crystallizer ponds. FEMS Microbiol Ecol 36:123–130

Rampelotto PH (2010) Resistance of microorganisms to extreme environmental conditions and its contribution to astrobiology. Sustainability 2:1602–1623



Humans and gators and chickens, oh my!

Jimena B. Pérez-Viscasillas, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez


When I first applied to this Marine Biology REU, in a lab that works mostly with alligators, at a Marine Science Campus right by the Charleston shore, I never thought I’d end up working with chickens. Yes, you read correctly: chickens, of the Chick-Fill-A and Kentucky Fried sort. I was surprised too, naturally, but it turns out the reason behind it is actually pretty important.

A couple of years ago, a group of scientists noticed some alligator populations in Florida weren’t doing too well. Their fertility levels were decreasing and a lower percentage of the eggs laid were hatching. Upon further study, evidence pointed towards a likely culprit: anthropogenic chemical contaminants in the environment. These contaminants were negatively affecting the gators’ hormone production and, in turn, their reproductive systems.

What do these gators have to do with chickens, though? Perhaps more importantly, what do they have to do with us? Let’s review some basic bio…

Figure 1: Vertebrate phylogenetic tree. Amniotes are organisms which have adapted to terrestrial reproduction. This group includes birds, reptiles, and mammals. (Graphic taken from: UCL)

There are some terrestrial animals which lay eggs (like chickens and gators) and some that carry their young in the womb, inside the placenta (like us). Both types of organisms, collectively called amniotes, have much of the same tissues surrounding their embryos during development. This shared characteristic means that we may be able to study some egg-laying animals to better understand our own reproductive systems.

Figure 2: A chick embryo and membrane. The membrane I’m going to be studying is that which lines the inside of the shell. Its called the chorioallantoic membrane, and it allows gas and waste exchange between the embryo and the environment. (Taken from Angiogenesis Laboratory Amsterdam)

Before we can use these organisms’ tissues as models of our own, however, we have to make sure we understand how they function. This is where I (and the chickens) come in. This summer, I’m going to be measuring how (and if), at different stages of development, the egg membrane of chickens produces hormones called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins play a major role in the immune system, as well as the body’s general regulation and reproduction. This preliminary research would help us better understand these sentinel species and allow us to later assess how their endocrine, immune and reproductive systems are being compromised by environmental pollutants. If we know how chemical contaminants in the environment are having negative effects on their reproduction, what might it tell us about how they’re affecting our health and reproduction?

To learn more about my project, check back for further posts!


This research, conducted at Dr. Louis Guillete’s MUSC Laboratory, is made possible thanks to funding from NSF and the College of Charleston. Further equipment and facilities are provided by the Hollings Marine Laboratory.



Bellairs, Ruth & Osmond, Mark. The Atlas of Chick Development.  San Diego, California: Elsevier Academic Press, 2005. Print.

Guillette LJ Jr. “The evolution of viviparity in amniote vertebrates—new insights, new questions.” J Zool  223 (1991): 521–526. Web. 10 June 2015.

Guillette LJ Jr. “The evolution of viviparity in lizards.” Bioscience 43 (1993): 742–751. Print.

Kalinski P. “Regulation of Immune Responses by Prostaglandin E2.” J Immunol 188 (2012):21-28. Web. 10 June 2015.

Kluge AG. Chordate Structure and Function. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; 1977. Print.

Milnes MR, Guillette LJ Jr. “Alligator Tales: New Lessons about Environmental Contaminants from a Sentinel Species.” BioScience 58.11 (2008): 1027-1036. Web. 15 June 2015.  doi:10.1641/B581106