can fungi survive in cold environments

Can Fungi Survive In Cold Environments?

Last Updated on August 17, 2023 by Krystine

Fungi possess remarkable adaptations enabling many species to thrive in the frigid Arctic and Antarctic environments.

These cold-loving fungi have developed strategies to withstand freezing, desiccation, and other challenges in extreme habitats.

Read on to learn how fungi can actively grow, reproduce, and decompose in some of the harshest places on Earth.

Can Fungi Survive In Cold Environments?

Mushrooms on a tree survivng winter
Image Credit: Wild Foodism

Yes, many fungi species have adapted through evolution to withstand freezing conditions and even metabolize at subzero temperatures.

These cold-loving fungi use strategies like antifreeze proteins and high lipid content to prevent ice formation in cells and enable limited activity when frozen.

Key Points

  • Fungi can remain dormant but alive during freezing via thick cell walls and slowed metabolism.
  • Some polar fungi produce enzymes enabling decomposition at near-freezing temperatures.
  • Adaptations like antifreeze proteins allow fungi to tolerate freezing in Arctic and Antarctic soils.

How Do Fungi React to Freezing Temperatures?

When exposed to freezing conditions, most fungi enter a dormant state.

Freezing halts active growth as ice crystals can rupture cell membranes and damage structures.

Some species produce antifreeze proteins and polyols to allow tolerance of freezing.

But fungi generally become metabolically inactive until temperatures rise above freezing again.

Can Fungi Metabolize in Subzero Conditions?

Remarkably, yes – some cold-adapted fungi can remain actively metabolizing even when chilled below freezing.

For example, strains of fungus isolated from Alaskan soils can grow and decompose organic matter at -2°C.

Fungal activity has even been detected at temperatures as low as -18°C in permafrost soils.

What Adaptations Help Fungi Survive Freezing?

The key adaptations of Fungi to cold environments include the production of antifreeze proteins, polyols, and ice-nucleating agents that modulate ice crystal formation.

Thick cell walls provide protection against ice intrusion and associated mechanical damage.

Slowed metabolism preserves energy, while increased production of enzymes, lipids, and carbohydrates aids in cold functionality once growth resumes.

Do Any Fungi Actually Thrive in Freezing Conditions?

Microdochium nivale growing on Grass
Image Credit: The Lawn Man

Remarkably, yes – a small subset of extremophile fungi actually thrive in the freezing conditions of alpine and polar environments.

For example, Mrakia yeasts isolated from the Antarctic can actively metabolize and replicate at temperatures as low as -10°C.

The snow mold fungus Microdochium nivale also flourishes in the frigid, humid environment beneath the snow cover.

How Do Fungi Survive in Arctic Environments?

In Arctic environments, fungi survive through periodic dormancy interspersed with brief bouts of summer activity and growth.

Some species time fruiting to the short summer season.

Others can exploit transient warm microclimates, such as the heat generated by plant and animal activity.

Association with cold-tolerant hosts like alpine plants also enables persistence under the insulating snowpack.

Can Fungi Access Liquid Water When Frozen?

Yes, films of liquid water exist even in frozen fungal cells and the surrounding ice matrix.

This thin vein of liquid provides just enough moisture for limited diffusion and transport of solutes down concentration gradients.

Slow metabolism allows fungi to subsist on this sparse liquid water until melting enables full activity.

How Do Fungi Decompose in Icy Conditions?

Cold-adapted fungi produce ligninolytic enzymes optimized to break down complex organic matter even at near-freezing temperatures.

Their cell membranes maintain fluidity, enabling the transport of decay products across the membrane.

And increased production of glycerol binds water, preventing intracellular freezing. This enables gradual decomposition.

Which Species of Fungi Live in Antarctic Soils?

Fungi isolated from frigid Antarctic soils are predominantly Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes.

These include Penicillium, Aspergillus, Cladosporium, Cryptococcus, and Thelebolus species, among others.

These fungi display high lipid content to maintain membrane fluidity and prevent intracellular ice formation.

Many Antarctic fungal species remain undescribed by science.

Are There Fungi Adapted to Polar Sea Ice?

Yes, diverse fungi inhabit the undersides of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.

These include specialized psychrophiles like Glaciozyma Antarctica.

Adapted to extremely cold, saline conditions, they exploit channels of liquid brine that permeate sea ice.

Their spores survive passage through the guts of krill and other marine animals, spreading distribution.

Can Fungi Survive Freezing?

Yes, many fungi species have adapted to survive freezing through various evolutionary strategies.

These include producing antifreeze proteins that bind to ice crystals and prevent them from enlarging.

Other compounds like glycerol and erythritol act as cryoprotectants to prevent intracellular freezing.

Additional adaptations include changes to membrane lipid composition to maintain fluidity at low temperatures.

Fungi also slow metabolic rates during freezing to conserve energy.

And fungi can form hardy survival structures like sclerotia and fruiting bodies to shield genetic material from damage.

While freezing stops active growth, adapted fungi revive and resume growing after thawing.

What Temperature Kills Fungus?

Most fungi enter dormancy but remain viable when frozen, even down to -10°C or below.

Active growth ceases as ice disrupts cellular processes.

But dormant fungi can survive far colder temperatures.

Psychrophilic polar fungi metabolize at -20°C.

Permafrost fungi may withstand below -40°C when inactive.

On the other end, fungi can survive over 60°C when in spore form.

So fungi tolerate a wide span of temperatures through dormancy.

What Is The Coldest Temperature That Fungi Can Survive?

Documented cold temperature limits for active fungal growth are around -20°C, demonstrated by psychrophilic species in Antarctica.

Certain fungi isolated from the frigid McMurdo Dry Valleys can metabolize at temperatures down to -18°C.

When dormant, fungal spores in Arctic and Antarctic ice cores remain viable after exposure to temperatures likely below -40°C.

The theoretical lower limit for dormant fungal survival is unclear but appears to be well below freezing.

What Do Fungi Do When It Gets Cold?

Fungi exhibit a range of adaptive responses to survive cold conditions.

These include altering membrane lipids to maintain fluidity, producing antifreeze compounds, aggregating hyphae, forming hardy spores and fruiting bodies, slowing metabolism to conserve energy, and entering dormancy.

While freezing halts the growth and transportation of nutrients, adapted fungi persist in a quiescent state until temperatures rise enough to resume activity.

Key Takeaways:

  • Fungi can persist in the most frigid environments on Earth through remarkable evolutionary adaptations.
  • Their ability to survive and even metabolize at temperatures below freezing expands the known boundaries of life.
  • Fungi continue demonstrating incredible resilience in Earth’s harshest habitats.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Fungi Adapt To The Cold?

Fungal cold adaptations include producing antifreeze compounds, altering membrane lipid composition, forming hardy spores, slowing metabolism, aggregating hyphae, and entering dormancy. These strategies prevent cell damage and prime fungi for regrowth after freezing ends.

Can Frozen Fungi Still Grow?

No, freezing halts active fungal growth and transportation of nutrients in cells. But some psychrophilic fungi adapted to polar extremes can continue metabolizing and decomposing frozen organic matter at temperatures down to around -18°C.

Do Cold Temperatures Kill Fungal Spores?

No, fungal spores and dormant structures like sclerotia survive extremely cold temperatures in Arctic permafrost, glacial ice, and Antarctic soils. Spores revived from Arctic sediments over 100,000 years old could still grow. As long as they avoid intracellular freezing, dormant fungi can persist below -40°C.

Why Don’t Fungi Freeze In The Cold?

Adapted fungi avoid freezing damage through protective compounds like glycerol that lower the freezing point inside cells. Modified lipids keep membranes flexible even when cold. Spores and dormancy shield genetic material. Slowed metabolism requires less unfrozen water. These tactics allow fungi to withstand even below -40°C when inactive.

GreenChiCafe is passionate about mycology and the remarkable ability of fungi to colonize Earth’s coldest environments.

Check out our website for more content on psychrophiles, extremophiles, and survival under extreme conditions.


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