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Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology
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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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Life in a Droplet: Microbial Ecology in Microscopic Surface Wetness


Orevi, T. ; Kashtan, N. Life in a Droplet: Microbial Ecology in Microscopic Surface Wetness. FRONTIERS IN MICROBIOLOGY 2021, 12.

Date Published:

APR 13


While many natural and artificial surfaces may appear dry, they are in fact covered by thin liquid films and microdroplets invisible to the naked eye known as microscopic surface wetness (MSW). Central to the formation and the retention of MSW are the deliquescent properties of hygroscopic salts that prevent complete drying of wet surfaces or that drive the absorption of water until dissolution when the relative humidity is above a salt-specific level. As salts are ubiquitous, MSW occurs in many microbial habitats, such as soil, rocks, plant leaf, and root surfaces, the built environment, and human and animal skin. While key properties of MSW, including very high salinity and segregation into droplets, greatly affect microbial life therein, it has been scarcely studied, and systematic studies are only in their beginnings. Based on recent findings, we propose that the harsh micro-environment that MSW imposes, which is very different from bulk liquid, affects key aspects of bacterial ecology including survival traits, antibiotic response, competition, motility, communication, and exchange of genetic material. Further research is required to uncover the fundamental principles that govern microbial life and ecology in MSW. Such research will require multidisciplinary science cutting across biology, physics, and chemistry, while incorporating approaches from microbiology, genomics, microscopy, and computational modeling. The results of such research will be critical to understand microbial ecology in vast terrestrial habitats, affecting global biogeochemical cycles, as well as plant, animal, and human health.