Ubiquitous noxious hydrophobic substances, such as hydrocarbons, pesticides and diverse industrial chemicals, stress biological systems and thereby affect their ability to mediate biosphere functions like element and energy cycling vital to biosphere health. Such chemically diverse compounds may have distinct toxic activities for cellular systems; they may also share a common mechanism of stress induction mediated by their hydrophobicity. We hypothesized that the stressful effects of, and cellular adaptations to, hydrophobic stressors operate at the level of water : macromolecule interactions. Here, we present evidence that: (i) hydrocarbons reduce structural interactions within and between cellular macromolecules, (ii) organic compatible solutes - metabolites that protect against osmotic and chaotrope-induced stresses - ameliorate this effect, (iii) toxic hydrophobic substances induce a potent form of water stress in macromolecular and cellular systems, and (iv) the stress mechanism of, and cellular responses to, hydrophobic substances are remarkably similar to those associated with chaotrope-induced water stress. These findings suggest that it may be possible to devise new interventions for microbial processes in both natural environments and industrial reactors to expand microbial tolerance of hydrophobic substances, and hence the biotic windows for such processes.