Microbial Life in Alkaline Environments

Created by Sarah Bordenstein, Marine Biological Laboratory

There are no precise definitions of what characterizes an alkaliphilic or alkalitolerant organism. Several microorganisms exhibit more than one pH optimum for growth depending on the growth conditions, particularly nutrients, metal ions, and temperature... Therefore, the term "alkaliphile" is used for microorganisms that grow optimally or very well at pH values above 9, often between 10 and 12, but cannot grow or grow only slowly at the near-neutral pH value of 6.5.

- Horikoshi, Koki. 1999. Alkaliphiles: Some Applications of Their Products for Biotechnology Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. 63(4):735-750.


Microbial Life in Alkaline Environments

Mark Twain once referred to the alkaline Mono Lake as "nearly pure lye" and commented that it contained "nothing, in fact, that goes to make life desirable." 125 years later, scientists have shown that the lake is actually teeming with an abundant diversity of microbial life. Microbes have been found thriving in many other alkaline environments as well, including the slag dumps of the Lake Calumet region in southeast Chicago, Octopus Spring in Yellowstone National Park, and the East African Rift Desert.

Mono Lake and exposed tufa

Major Challenges in an Alkaline Environment

Cells face many challenges in an alkaline environment. Of greatest significance is the ability to maintain internal pH. If cells are to survive in an alkaline environment, they must make their cytoplasm more acidic to buffer the alkalinity. In addition, enzymes"both excreted and surface located - must be resistant to the effects of extreme pH. Finally, the pH gradient must be reversed to carry out ATP synthesis.

Survival in an Alkaline Environment

What types of adaptations allow organisms to survive these extremely high pH environments? While alkaliphilic taxa have been identified in each of the three domains of Life (Eukarya, Archaea, and Eubacteria), the bioenergetics of alkaliphilic bacteria are perhaps the best understood.

Homeostasis in Alkaliphilic Bacteria

Internal pH maintenance is achieved by both active and passive regulation mechanisms in alkaliphilic bacteria. Cytoplasmic pools of polyamines and low membrane permeability are two modes of passive regulation, whereas sodium ion channels drive the active regulation.

Enzyme Stability

There is evidence that alkaliphiles have evolved pH stable enzymes; these are often used in the manufacturing of detergents.

Reversal of the pH Gradient

Alkaliphilic bacteria compensate for reversal of the pH gradient by having a high membrane potential or by coupling Na+ expulsion to electron transport for pH homeostasis and energy transduction.

Industrial Applications of Alkaliphilic Enzymes

Alkaliphilic enzymes have many industrial applications.

  • Proteases are used as detergent additives (detergent enzymes account for about 30% of total worldwide enzyme production) and in the hide-dehairing process.
  • Starch-degrading enzymes, such as amylase, hydrolyze starch to produce glucose, maltose, and maltotriose.
  • Pullulanaseis a good candidate for a dishwashing detergent additive.
  • Cellulasesare used as laundry detergent additives.
  • Xylanasesare a possible application in biologic debleacing processes (i.e., in pulp-milling factories).
  • Pectinases improve the production of paper by making it high-quality, nonwoody, and stronger. They are also used in waste treatment.

Alkaliphile Collections

General Collection: Resources such as news articles, web sites, and reference pages provide a comprehensive array of information about alkaliphiles. 

Advanced Collection: Compiled for professionals and advanced learners, this collection includes resources such as journal articles, academic reviews, and surveys.

For Educators: This collection includes activities, assignments, and reading materials created specifically for educators. 

Additional Resources

For additional resources about Alkaliphiles, search the Microbial Life collection.

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