The dying Dead Sea: The microbiology of an increasingly extreme environment

Aharon Oren*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


The Dead Sea, on the border between Israel and Jordan, currently contains around 348 g salt L-1. Divalent cations (Mg2+, Ca2+) dominate over monovalent cations (Na+, K+), while Cl- and Br- are the main anions. The pH of the Sea is about 6. The water balance of the lake is negative, having dropped over 1 m year-1 over the past decade. The water is supersaturated with Na+, with massive quantities of halite precipitating to the bottom of the lake. Biological monitoring since 1980 has indicated that blooms of the unicellular green alga Dunaliella and halophilic Archaea of the family Halobacteriaceae only develop following significant dilution of the upper water layers in the lake after very rainy winters. Such events occurred in 1980, and even more dramatically in 1992, when up to 3.5 × 107 Archaea mL-1 in the diluted upper 5-10 m of the water column coloured the lake red. Species isolated from the lake include Haloferax volcanii, Haloarcula marismortui, Halorubrum sodomense and Halobaculum gomorrense. Dunaliella was no longer observed in the lake after 1996, with prokaryote numbers remaining low. To characterize the residual microbial community in the lake, biomass was collected in February 2007 for environmental genomic analyses. The results were compared with the metagenome of microbial bloom material collected in 1992. The 16S rRNA archaeal phylotypes recovered from the 2007 sample were diverse, with phylotypes distantly related to the genera Halorhabdus, Haloplanus, Natronomonas and others. Halorhabdus sp. also was recovered in culture. The 1992 bloom sample was very homogeneous, however, with a single cluster remotely related to Halobacterium salinarum. These results illustrate that the microbial communities are dynamic, even in one of the most extreme environments on Earth, and exhibit strong shifts in species composition as conditions for life become increasingly adverse.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)215-222
Number of pages8
JournalLakes and Reservoirs: Science, Policy and Management for Sustainable Use
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2010


  • Archaea
  • Dead Sea
  • Dunaliella
  • Environmental genomics
  • Halobacteriaceae
  • Hypersaline


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