Groundwater cable bacteria conserve energy by sulfur disproportionation

Hubert Müller, Sviatlana Marozava, Alexander J. Probst, Rainer U. Meckenstock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


Cable bacteria of the family Desulfobulbaceae couple spatially separated sulfur oxidation and oxygen or nitrate reduction by long-distance electron transfer, which can constitute the dominant sulfur oxidation process in shallow sediments. However, it remains unknown how cells in the anoxic part of the centimeter-long filaments conserve energy. We found 16S rRNA gene sequences similar to groundwater cable bacteria in a 1-methylnaphthalene-degrading culture (1MN). Cultivation with elemental sulfur and thiosulfate with ferrihydrite or nitrate as electron acceptors resulted in a first cable bacteria enrichment culture dominated >90% by 16S rRNA sequences belonging to the Desulfobulbaceae. Desulfobulbaceae-specific fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) unveiled single cells and filaments of up to several hundred micrometers length to belong to the same species. The Desulfobulbaceae filaments also showed the distinctive cable bacteria morphology with their continuous ridge pattern as revealed by atomic force microscopy. The cable bacteria grew with nitrate as electron acceptor and elemental sulfur and thiosulfate as electron donor, but also by sulfur disproportionation when Fe(Cl)2 or Fe(OH)3 were present as sulfide scavengers. Metabolic reconstruction based on the first nearly complete genome of groundwater cable bacteria revealed the potential for sulfur disproportionation and a chemo-litho-autotrophic metabolism. The presence of different types of hydrogenases in the genome suggests that they can utilize hydrogen as alternative electron donor. Our results imply that cable bacteria not only use sulfide oxidation coupled to oxygen or nitrate reduction by LDET for energy conservation, but sulfur disproportionation might constitute the energy metabolism for cells in large parts of the cable bacterial filaments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)623-634
Number of pages12
JournalISME Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2020
Externally publishedYes


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