Life under extreme energy limitation: a synthesis of laboratory- and field-based investigations


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Abstract

The ability of microorganisms to withstand long periods with extremely low energy input has gained increasing scientific attention in recent years. Starvation experiments in the laboratory have shown that a phylogenetically wide range of microorganisms evolve fitness-enhancing genetic traits within weeks of incubation under low-energy stress. Studies on natural environments that are cut off from new energy supplies over geologic time scales, such as deeply buried sediments, suggest that similar adaptations might mediate survival under energy limitation in the environment. Yet, the extent to which laboratory-based evidence of starvation survival in pure or mixed cultures can be extrapolated to sustained microbial ecosystems in nature remains unclear. In this review, we discuss past investigations on microbial energy requirements and adaptations to energy limitation, identify gaps in our current knowledge, and outline possible future foci of research on life under extreme energy limitation.

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