Psychrophiles or cryophiles (adj. psychrophilic or cryophilic) are extremophilic organisms that are capable of growth and reproduction in low temperatures, ranging from −20 °C to +10 °C. They are found in places that are permanently cold, such as Antarctica and the deep sea. They can be contrasted with thermophiles, which are organisms that thrive at unusually high temperatures. Psychrophile is Greek for 'cold-loving'.
The cold environments that psychrophiles inhabit are ubiquitous on Earth, as a large fraction of our planetary surface experiences temperatures lower than 15 °C. They are present in permafrost, polar ice, glaciers, snowfields and deep ocean waters. These organisms can also be found in pockets of sea ice with high salinity content. Microbial activity has been measured in soils frozen below −39 °C. In addition to their temperature limit, psychrophiles must also adapt to other extreme environmental constraints that may arise as a result of their habitat. These constraints include high pressure in the deep sea, and high salt concentration on some sea ice.
Psychrophiles are protected from freezing and the expansion of ice by ice-induced desiccation and vitrification (glass transition), as long as they cool slowly. Free living cells desiccate and vitrify between −10 °C and −26 °C. Cells of multicellular organisms may vitrify at temperatures below −50 °C. The cells may continue to have some metabolic activity in the extracellular fluid down to these temperatures, and they remain viable once restored to normal temperatures.
They must also overcome the stiffening of their lipid cell membrane, as this is important for the survival and functionality of these organisms. To accomplish this, psychrophiles adapt lipid membrane structures that have a high content of short, unsaturated fatty acids. Compared to longer saturated fatty acids, incorporating this type of fatty acid allows for the lipid cell membrane to have a lower melting point, which increases the fluidity of the membranes. In addition, carotenoids are present in the membrane, which help modulate the fluidity of it.
Antifreeze proteins are also synthesized to keep psychrophiles' internal space liquid, and to protect their DNA when temperatures drop below water's freezing point. By doing so, the protein prevents any ice formation or recrystallization process from occurring.
The enzymes of these organisms have been hypothesized to engage in a activity-stability-flexibility relationship as a method for adapting to the cold; the flexibility of their enzyme structure will increase as a way to compensate for the freezing effect of their environment.
Certain cryophiles, such as Gram-negative bacteria, can transition into a viable but nonculturable (VBNC) state. During VBNC, a micro-organism can respirate and use substrates for metabolism – however, it cannot replicate. An advantage of this state is that it is highly reversible. It has been debated whether VBNC is an active survival strategy or if eventually the organism's cells will no longer be able to be revived. There is proof however it may be very effective – Gram positive bacteria Actinobacteria have been shown to have lived about 500,000 years in the permafrost conditions of Antarctica, Canada, and Serbia.