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Deserts represent an extreme challenge for photosynthetic life. Despite their aridity, they are often inhabited by diverse microscopic communities of cyanobacteria. These organisms are commonly found in lithic habitats, where they are partially sheltered from extremes of temperature and UV radiation. However, living under the rock surface imposes additional constraints, such as limited light availability, and enrichment of longer wavelengths than are typically usable for oxygenic photosynthesis. Some cyanobacteria from the genus Chroococcidiopsis can use this light to photosynthesize, in a process known as far-red light photoacclimation, or FaRLiP. This genus has commonly been reported from both hot and cold deserts. However, not all Chroococcidiopsis strains carry FaRLiP genes, thus motivating our study into the interplay between FaRLiP and extreme lithic environments. The abundance of sequence data and strains provided the necessary material for an in-depth phylogenetic study, involving spectroscopy, microscopy, and determination of pigment composition, as well as gene and genome analyses. Pigment analyses revealed the presence of red-shifted chlorophylls d and f in all FaRLiP strains tested. In addition, eight genus-level taxa were defined within the encompassing Chroococcidiopsidales, clarifying the phylogeny of this long-standing polyphyletic order. FaRLiP is near universally present in a generalist genus identified in a wide variety of environments, Chroococcidiopsis sensu stricto, while it is rare or absent in closely related, extremophile taxa, including those preferentially inhabiting deserts. This likely reflects the evolutionary process of gene loss in specialist lineages.

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Institute for Experimental Physics, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany.