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1.  Microbially induced sedimentary structures in evaporite–siliciclastic sediments of Ras Gemsa sabkha, Red Sea Coast, Egypt 
Journal of Advanced Research  2013;5(5):577-586.
The coastal sabkha in Ras Gemsa, Red Sea coast with its colonizing microbial mats and biofilms was investigated. The sabkha sediments consist mainly of terrigenous siliciclastic material accompanied by the development of evaporites. Halite serves as a good conduit for light and reduces the effect of intensive harmful solar radiation, which allows microbial mats to survive and flourish. The microbial mats in the evaporite–siliciclastic environments of such sabkha display distinctive sedimentary structures (microbially induced sedimentary structures), including frozen multidirected ripple marks, salt-encrusted crinkle mats, jelly roll structure, and petee structures. Scanning electron microscopy of the sediment surface colonized by cyanobacteria revealed that sand grains of the studied samples are incorporated into the biofilm by trapping and binding processes. Filamentous cyanobacteria and their EPS found in the voids in and between the particles construct a network that effectively interweaves and stabilizes the surface sediments. In advanced stages, the whole surface is covered by a spider web-like structure of biofilm, leading to a planar surface morphology. Sabkha with its chemical precipitates is a good model for potential preservation of life signatures. It is worthy to note that the available, published works on the subject of the present work are not numerous.
PMCID: PMC4294312
Biofilms; Coastal sabkha; Evaporites; Microbial mats; Siliciclastics
2.  Antiquity of the biological sulphur cycle: evidence from sulphur and carbon isotopes in 2700 million-year-old rocks of the Belingwe Belt, Zimbabwe. 
Sulphur and carbon isotopic analyses on small samples of kerogens and sulphide minerals from biogenic and non-biogenic sediments of the 2.7 x 10(9) years(Ga)-old Belingwe Greenstone Belt (Zimbabwe) imply that a complex biological sulphur cycle was in operation. Sulphur isotopic compositions display a wider range of biological fractionation than hitherto reported from the Archaean. Carbon isotopic values in kerogen record fractionations characteristic of rubisco activity methanogenesis and methylotrophy and possibly anoxygenic photosynthesis. Carbon and sulphur isotopic fractionations have been interpreted in terms of metabolic processes in 2.7 Ga prokaryote mat communities, and indicate the operation of a diverse array of metabolic processes. The results are consistent with models of early molecular evolution derived from ribosomal RNA.
PMCID: PMC1088579  PMID: 11209879
3.  Ordovician ash geochemistry and the establishment of land plants 
The colonization of the terrestrial environment by land plants transformed the planetary surface and its biota, and shifted the balance of Earth’s biomass from the subsurface towards the surface. However there was a long delay between the formation of palaeosols (soils) on the land surface and the key stage of plant colonization. The record of palaeosols, and their colonization by fungi and lichens extends well back into the Precambrian. While these early soils provided a potential substrate, they were generally leached of nutrients as part of the weathering process. In contrast, volcanic ash falls provide a geochemically favourable substrate that is both nutrient-rich and has high water retention, making them good hosts to land plants. An anomalously extensive system of volcanic arcs generated unprecedented volumes of lava and volcanic ash (tuff) during the Ordovician. The earliest, mid-Ordovician, records of plant spores coincide with these widespread volcanic deposits, suggesting the possibility of a genetic relationship. The ash constituted a global environment of nutrient-laden, water-saturated soil that could be exploited to maximum advantage by the evolving anchoring systems of land plants. The rapid and pervasive inoculation of modern volcanic ash by plant spores, and symbiotic nitrogen-fixing fungi, suggests that the Ordovician ash must have received a substantial load of the earliest spores and their chemistry favoured plant development. In particular, high phosphorus levels in ash were favourable to plant growth. This may have allowed photosynthesizers to diversify and enlarge, and transform the surface of the planet.
PMCID: PMC3485180  PMID: 22925460
Ash geochemistry; Tuff; Land plants; Chemical index of alteration; Phosphorus; Biomass; Ordovician
4.  Phylogenetic Analysis of a Microbialite-Forming Microbial Mat from a Hypersaline Lake of the Kiritimati Atoll, Central Pacific 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(6):e66662.
On the Kiritimati atoll, several lakes exhibit microbial mat-formation under different hydrochemical conditions. Some of these lakes trigger microbialite formation such as Lake 21, which is an evaporitic, hypersaline lake (salinity of approximately 170‰). Lake 21 is completely covered with a thick multilayered microbial mat. This mat is associated with the formation of decimeter-thick highly porous microbialites, which are composed of aragonite and gypsum crystals. We assessed the bacterial and archaeal community composition and its alteration along the vertical stratification by large-scale analysis of 16S rRNA gene sequences of the nine different mat layers. The surface layers are dominated by aerobic, phototrophic, and halotolerant microbes. The bacterial community of these layers harbored Cyanobacteria (Halothece cluster), which were accompanied with known phototrophic members of the Bacteroidetes and Alphaproteobacteria. In deeper anaerobic layers more diverse communities than in the upper layers were present. The deeper layers were dominated by Spirochaetes, sulfate-reducing bacteria (Deltaproteobacteria), Chloroflexi (Anaerolineae and Caldilineae), purple non-sulfur bacteria (Alphaproteobacteria), purple sulfur bacteria (Chromatiales), anaerobic Bacteroidetes (Marinilabiacae), Nitrospirae (OPB95), Planctomycetes and several candidate divisions. The archaeal community, including numerous uncultured taxonomic lineages, generally changed from Euryarchaeota (mainly Halobacteria and Thermoplasmata) to uncultured members of the Thaumarchaeota (mainly Marine Benthic Group B) with increasing depth.
PMCID: PMC3677903  PMID: 23762495
5.  The Emergence of Environmental Homeostasis in Complex Ecosystems 
PLoS Computational Biology  2013;9(5):e1003050.
The Earth, with its core-driven magnetic field, convective mantle, mobile lid tectonics, oceans of liquid water, dynamic climate and abundant life is arguably the most complex system in the known universe. This system has exhibited stability in the sense of, bar a number of notable exceptions, surface temperature remaining within the bounds required for liquid water and so a significant biosphere. Explanations for this range from anthropic principles in which the Earth was essentially lucky, to homeostatic Gaia in which the abiotic and biotic components of the Earth system self-organise into homeostatic states that are robust to a wide range of external perturbations. Here we present results from a conceptual model that demonstrates the emergence of homeostasis as a consequence of the feedback loop operating between life and its environment. Formulating the model in terms of Gaussian processes allows the development of novel computational methods in order to provide solutions. We find that the stability of this system will typically increase then remain constant with an increase in biological diversity and that the number of attractors within the phase space exponentially increases with the number of environmental variables while the probability of the system being in an attractor that lies within prescribed boundaries decreases approximately linearly. We argue that the cybernetic concept of rein control provides insights into how this model system, and potentially any system that is comprised of biological to environmental feedback loops, self-organises into homeostatic states.
Author Summary
Life on Earth is perhaps greater than three and a half billion years old and it would appear that once it started it never stopped. During this period a number of dramatic shocks and drivers have affected the Earth. These include the impacts of massive asteroids, runaway climate change and increases in brightness of the Sun. Has life on Earth simply been lucky in withstanding such perturbations? Are there any self-regulating or homeostatic processes operating in the Earth system that would reduce the severity of such perturbations? If such planetary processes exist, to what extent are they the result of the actions of life? In this study, we show how the regulation of environmental conditions can emerge as a consequence of life's effects. If life is both affected by and affects it environment, then this coupled system can self-organise into a robust control system that was first described during the early cybernetics movement around the middle of the twentieth century. Our findings are in principle applicable to a wide range of real world systems - from microbial mats to aquatic ecosystems up to and including the entire biosphere.
PMCID: PMC3656095  PMID: 23696719
6.  Spatial Structure and Activity of Sedimentary Microbial Communities Underlying a Beggiatoa spp. Mat in a Gulf of Mexico Hydrocarbon Seep 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(1):e8738.
Subsurface fluids from deep-sea hydrocarbon seeps undergo methane- and sulfur-cycling microbial transformations near the sediment surface. Hydrocarbon seep habitats are naturally patchy, with a mosaic of active seep sediments and non-seep sediments. Microbial community shifts and changing activity patterns on small spatial scales from seep to non-seep sediment remain to be examined in a comprehensive habitat study.
Methodology/Principal Findings
We conducted a transect of biogeochemical measurements and gene expression related to methane- and sulfur-cycling at different sediment depths across a broad Beggiatoa spp. mat at Mississippi Canyon 118 (MC118) in the Gulf of Mexico. High process rates within the mat (∼400 cm and ∼10 cm from the mat's edge) contrasted with sharply diminished activity at ∼50 cm outside the mat, as shown by sulfate and methane concentration profiles, radiotracer rates of sulfate reduction and methane oxidation, and stable carbon isotopes. Likewise, 16S ribosomal rRNA, dsrAB (dissimilatory sulfite reductase) and mcrA (methyl coenzyme M reductase) mRNA transcripts of sulfate-reducing bacteria (Desulfobacteraceae and Desulfobulbaceae) and methane-cycling archaea (ANME-1 and ANME-2) were prevalent at the sediment surface under the mat and at its edge. Outside the mat at the surface, 16S rRNA sequences indicated mostly aerobes commonly found in seawater. The seep-related communities persisted at 12–20 cm depth inside and outside the mat. 16S rRNA transcripts and V6-tags reveal that bacterial and archaeal diversity underneath the mat are similar to each other, in contrast to oxic or microoxic habitats that have higher bacterial diversity.
The visual patchiness of microbial mats reflects sharp discontinuities in microbial community structure and activity over sub-meter spatial scales; these discontinuities have to be taken into account in geochemical and microbiological inventories of seep environments. In contrast, 12–20 cm deep in the sediments microbial communities performing methane-cycling and sulfate reduction persist at lower metabolic rates regardless of mat cover, and may increase activity rapidly when subsurface flow changes.
PMCID: PMC2806916  PMID: 20090951
7.  Molecular Analysis of the Diversity of Sulfate-Reducing and Sulfur-Oxidizing Prokaryotes in the Environment, Using aprA as Functional Marker Gene▿ † 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2007;73(23):7664-7679.
The dissimilatory adenosine-5′-phosposulfate reductase is a key enzyme of the microbial sulfate reduction and sulfur oxidation processes. Because the alpha- and beta-subunit-encoding genes, aprBA, are highly conserved among sulfate-reducing and sulfur-oxidizing prokaryotes, they are most suitable for molecular profiling of the microbial community structure of the sulfur cycle in environment. In this study, a new aprA gene-targeting assay using a combination of PCR and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis is presented. The screening of sulfate-reducing and sulfur-oxidizing reference strains as well as the analyses of environmental DNA from diverse habitats (e.g., microbial mats, invertebrate tissue, marine and estuarine sediments, and filtered hydrothermal water) by the new primer pair revealed an improved microbial diversity coverage and less-pronounced template-to-PCR product bias in direct comparison to those of the previously published primer set (B. Deplancke, K. R. Hristova, H. A. Oakley, V. J. McCracken, R. Aminov, R. I. Mackie, and H. R. Gaskins, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 66:2166-2174, 2000). The concomitant molecular detection of sulfate-reducing and sulfur-oxidizing prokaryotes was confirmed. The new assay was applied in comparison with the 16S rRNA gene-based analysis to investigate the microbial diversity of the sulfur cycle in sediment, seawater, and manganese crust samples from four study sites in the area of the Lesser Antilles volcanic arc, Caribbean Sea (Caribflux project). The aprA gene-based approach revealed putative sulfur-oxidizing Alphaproteobacteria of chemolithoheterotrophic lifestyle to have been abundant in the nonhydrothermal sediment and water column. In contrast, the sulfur-based microbial community that inhabited the surface of the volcanic manganese crust was more complex, consisting predominantly of putative chemolithoautotrophic sulfur oxidizers of the Betaproteobacteria and Gammaproteobacteria.
PMCID: PMC2168068  PMID: 17921272
8.  Phototrophs in High-Iron-Concentration Microbial Mats: Physiological Ecology of Phototrophs in an Iron-Depositing Hot Spring 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  1999;65(12):5474-5483.
At Chocolate Pots Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park the source waters have a pH near neutral, contain high concentrations of reduced iron, and lack sulfide. An iron formation that is associated with cyanobacterial mats is actively deposited. The uptake of [14C]bicarbonate was used to assess the impact of ferrous iron on photosynthesis in this environment. Photoautotrophy in some of the mats was stimulated by ferrous iron (1.0 mM). Microelectrodes were used to determine the impact of photosynthetic activity on the oxygen content and the pH in the mat and sediment microenvironments. Photosynthesis increased the oxygen concentration to 200% of air saturation levels in the top millimeter of the mats. The oxygen concentration decreased with depth and in the dark. Light-dependent increases in pH were observed. The penetration of light in the mats and in the sediments was determined. Visible radiation was rapidly attenuated in the top 2 mm of the iron-rich mats. Near-infrared radiation penetrated deeper. Iron was totally oxidized in the top few millimeters, but reduced iron was detected at greater depths. By increasing the pH and the oxygen concentration in the surface sediments, the cyanobacteria could potentially increase the rate of iron oxidation in situ. This high-iron-content hot spring provides a suitable model for studying the interactions of microbial photosynthesis and iron deposition and the role of photosynthesis in microbial iron cycling. This model may help clarify the potential role of photosynthesis in the deposition of Precambrian banded iron formations.
PMCID: PMC91746  PMID: 10584006
9.  Benthic Cyanobacterial Mats in the High Arctic: Multi-Layer Structure and Fluorescence Responses to Osmotic Stress 
Cyanobacterial mats are often a major biological component of extreme aquatic ecosystems, and in polar lakes and streams they may account for the dominant fraction of total ecosystem biomass and productivity. In this study we examined the vertical structure and physiology of Arctic microbial mats relative to the question of how these communities may respond to ongoing environmental change. The mats were sampled from Ward Hunt Lake (83°5.297′N, 74°9.985′W) at the northern coast of Arctic Canada, and were composed of three visibly distinct layers. Microsensor profiling showed that there were strong gradients in oxygen within each layer, with an overall decrease from 100% saturation at the mat surface to 0%, at the bottom, accompanied by an increase of 0.6 pH units down the profile. Gene clone libraries (16S rRNA) revealed the presence of Oscillatorian sequences throughout the mat, while Nostoc related species dominated the two upper layers, and Nostocales and Synechococcales sequences were common in the bottom layer. High performance liquid chromatography analyses showed a parallel gradient in pigments, from high concentrations of UV-screening scytonemin in the upper layer to increasing zeaxanthin and myxoxanthin in the bottom layer, and an overall shift from photoprotective to photosynthetic carotenoids down the profile. Climate change is likely to be accompanied by lake level fluctuations and evaporative concentration of salts, and thus increased osmotic stress of the littoral mat communities. To assess the cellular capacity to tolerate increasing osmolarity on physiology and cell membrane integrity, mat sections were exposed to a gradient of increasing salinities, and PAM measurements of in vivo chlorophyll fluorescence were made to assess changes in maximum quantum yield. The results showed that the mats were tolerant of up to a 46-fold increase in salinity. These features imply that cyanobacterial mats are resilient to ongoing climate change, and that in the absence of major biological perturbations, these vertically structured communities will continue to be a prominent feature of polar aquatic ecosystems.
PMCID: PMC3337508  PMID: 22557996
microbial mats; cyanobacteria; polar lake; pigments; molecular phylogeny
10.  Microbially Induced Sedimentary Structures Recording an Ancient Ecosystem in the ca. 3.48 Billion-Year-Old Dresser Formation, Pilbara, Western Australia 
Astrobiology  2013;13(12):1103-1124.
Microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS) result from the response of microbial mats to physical sediment dynamics. MISS are cosmopolitan and found in many modern environments, including shelves, tidal flats, lagoons, riverine shores, lakes, interdune areas, and sabkhas. The structures record highly diverse communities of microbial mats and have been reported from numerous intervals in the geological record up to 3.2 billion years (Ga) old. This contribution describes a suite of MISS from some of the oldest well-preserved sedimentary rocks in the geological record, the early Archean (ca. 3.48 Ga) Dresser Formation, Western Australia. Outcrop mapping at the meter to millimeter scale defined five sub-environments characteristic of an ancient coastal sabkha. These sub-environments contain associations of distinct macroscopic and microscopic MISS. Macroscopic MISS include polygonal oscillation cracks and gas domes, erosional remnants and pockets, and mat chips. Microscopic MISS comprise tufts, sinoidal structures, and laminae fabrics; the microscopic laminae are composed of primary carbonaceous matter, pyrite, and hematite, plus trapped and bound grains. Identical suites of MISS occur in equivalent environmental settings through the entire subsequent history of Earth including the present time. This work extends the geological record of MISS by almost 300 million years. Complex mat-forming microbial communities likely existed almost 3.5 billion years ago. Key Words: Archean—Biofilms—Microbial mats—Early Earth—Evolution. Astrobiology 13, 1103–1124.
PMCID: PMC3870916  PMID: 24205812
11.  Community Structure and Activity of a Highly Dynamic and Nutrient-Limited Hypersaline Microbial Mat in Um Alhool Sabkha, Qatar 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(3):e92405.
The Um Alhool area in Qatar is a dynamic evaporative ecosystem that receives seawater from below as it is surrounded by sand dunes. We investigated the chemical composition, the microbial activity and biodiversity of the four main layers (L1–L4) in the photosynthetic mats. Chlorophyll a (Chl a) concentration and distribution (measured by HPLC and hyperspectral imaging, respectively), the phycocyanin distribution (scanned with hyperspectral imaging), oxygenic photosynthesis (determined by microsensor), and the abundance of photosynthetic microorganisms (from 16S and 18S rRNA sequencing) decreased with depth in the euphotic layer (L1). Incident irradiance exponentially attenuated in the same zone reaching 1% at 1.7-mm depth. Proteobacteria dominated all layers of the mat (24%–42% of the identified bacteria). Anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria (dominated by Chloroflexus) were most abundant in the third red layer of the mat (L3), evidenced by the spectral signature of Bacteriochlorophyll as well as by sequencing. The deep, black layer (L4) was dominated by sulfate reducing bacteria belonging to the Deltaproteobacteria, which were responsible for high sulfate reduction rates (measured using 35S tracer). Members of Halobacteria were the dominant Archaea in all layers of the mat (92%–97%), whereas Nematodes were the main Eukaryotes (up to 87%). Primary productivity rates of Um Alhool mat were similar to those of other hypersaline microbial mats. However, sulfate reduction rates were relatively low, indicating that oxygenic respiration contributes more to organic material degradation than sulfate reduction, because of bioturbation. Although Um Alhool hypersaline mat is a nutrient-limited ecosystem, it is interestingly dynamic and phylogenetically highly diverse. All its components work in a highly efficient and synchronized way to compensate for the lack of nutrient supply provided during regular inundation periods.
PMCID: PMC3962408  PMID: 24658360
12.  Bacterial Diversity and Sulfur Cycling in a Mesophilic Sulfide-Rich Spring 
An artesian sulfide- and sulfur-rich spring in southwestern Oklahoma is shown to sustain an extremely rich and diverse microbial community. Laboratory incubations and autoradiography studies indicated that active sulfur cycling is occurring in the abundant microbial mats at Zodletone spring. Anoxygenic phototrophic bacteria oxidize sulfide to sulfate, which is reduced by sulfate-reducing bacterial populations. The microbial community at Zodletone spring was analyzed by cloning and sequencing 16S rRNA genes. A large fraction (83%) of the microbial mat clones belong to sulfur- and sulfate-reducing lineages within δ-Proteobacteria, purple sulfur γ-Proteobacteria, ɛ-Proteobacteria, Chloroflexi, and filamentous Cyanobacteria of the order Oscillatoria as well as a novel group within γ-Proteobacteria. The 16S clone library constructed from hydrocarbon-exposed sediments at the source of the spring had a higher diversity than the mat clone library (Shannon-Weiner index of 3.84 compared to 2.95 for the mat), with a higher percentage of clones belonging to nonphototrophic lineages (e.g., Cytophaga, Spirochaetes, Planctomycetes, Firmicutes, and Verrucomicrobiae). Many of these clones were closely related to clones retrieved from hydrocarbon-contaminated environments and anaerobic hydrocarbon-degrading enrichments. In addition, 18 of the source clones did not cluster with any of the previously described microbial divisions. These 18 clones, together with previously published or database-deposited related sequences retrieved from a wide variety of environments, could be clustered into at least four novel candidate divisions. The sulfate-reducing community at Zodletone spring was characterized by cloning and sequencing a 1.9-kb fragment of the dissimilatory sulfite reductase (DSR) gene. DSR clones belonged to the Desulfococcus-Desulfosarcina-Desulfonema group, Desulfobacter group, and Desulfovibrio group as well as to a deeply branched group in the DSR tree with no representatives from cultures. Overall, this work expands the division-level diversity of the bacterial domain and highlights the complexity of microbial communities involved in sulfur cycling in mesophilic microbial mats.
PMCID: PMC194924  PMID: 12957951
13.  Diel Migrations of Microorganisms within a Benthic, Hypersaline Mat Community 
We studied the diel migrations of several species of microorganisms in a hypersaline, layered microbial mat. The migrations were quantified by repeated coring of the mat with glass capillary tubes. The resulting minicores were microscopically analyzed by using bright-field and epifluorescence (visible and infrared) microscopy to determine depths of coherent layers and were later dissected to determine direct microscopic counts of microorganisms. Microelectrode measurements of oxygen concentration, fiber optic microprobe measurements of light penetration within the mat, and incident irradiance measurements accompanied the minicore sampling. In addition, pigment content, photosynthesis and irradiance responses, the capacity for anoxygenic photosynthesis, and gliding speeds were determined for the migrating cyanobacteria. Heavily pigmented Oscillatoria sp. and Spirulina cf. subsalsa migrated downward into the mat during the early morning and remained deep until dusk, when upward migration occurred. The mean depth of the migration (not more than 0.4 to 0.5 mm) was directly correlated with the incident irradiance over the mat surface. We estimated that light intensity at the upper boundary of the migrating cyanobacteria was attenuated to such an extent that photoinhibition was effectively avoided but that intensities which saturated photosynthesis were maintained through most of the daylight hours. Light was a cue of paramount importance in triggering and modulating the migration of the cyanobacteria, even though the migrating phenomenon could not be explained solely in terms of a light response. We failed to detect diel migration patterns for other cyanobacterial species and filamentous anoxyphotobacteria. The sulfide-oxidizing bacterium Beggiatoa sp. migrated as a band that followed low oxygen concentrations within the mat during daylight hours. During the nighttime, part of this population migrated toward the mat surface, but a significant proportion remained deep.
PMCID: PMC201509  PMID: 16349251
14.  UV B-Induced Vertical Migrations of Cyanobacteria in a Microbial Mat 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  1995;61(12):4215-4222.
Exposure to moderate doses of UV B (0.35 to 0.79 W m(sup-2) s(sup-1) or 0.98 to 2.2 (mu)mol of photons m(sup-2) s(sup-1) at 310 nm) caused the surface layers of microbial mats from Solar Lake, Sinai, Egypt, to become visibly lighter green. Concurrent with the color change were rapid and dramatic reductions in gross photosynthesis and in the resultant high porewater oxygen concentrations in the surface layers of the mats. The depths at which both maximum gross photosynthesis and maximum oxygen concentrations occurred were displaced downward. In contrast, gross photosynthesis in the deeper layers of the mats increased in response to UV B incident upon the surface. The cessation of exposure to UV B partially reversed all of these changes. Taken together, these responses suggest that photoautotrophic members of the mat community, most likely the dominant cyanobacterium Microcoleus chthonoplastes, were migrating in response to the added UV B. The migration phenomenon was also observed in response to increases in visible radiation and UV A, but UV B was ca. 100-fold more effective than visible radiation and ca. 20-fold more effective than UV A in provoking the response. Migrating microorganisms within this mat are apparently able to sense UV B directly and respond behaviorally to limit their exposure to UV. Because of strong vertical gradients of light and dissolved substances in microbial mats, the migration and the resultant vertical redistribution of photosynthetic activity have important consequences for both the photobiology of the cyanobacteria and the net primary productivity of the mat ecosystem.
PMCID: PMC1388643  PMID: 16535178
15.  Metagenomic and Metabolic Profiling of Nonlithifying and Lithifying Stromatolitic Mats of Highborne Cay, The Bahamas 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e38229.
Stromatolites are laminated carbonate build-ups formed by the metabolic activity of microbial mats and represent one of the oldest known ecosystems on Earth. In this study, we examined a living stromatolite located within the Exuma Sound, The Bahamas and profiled the metagenome and metabolic potential underlying these complex microbial communities.
Methodology/Principal Findings
The metagenomes of the two dominant stromatolitic mat types, a nonlithifying (Type 1) and lithifying (Type 3) microbial mat, were partially sequenced and compared. This deep-sequencing approach was complemented by profiling the substrate utilization patterns of the mats using metabolic microarrays. Taxonomic assessment of the protein-encoding genes confirmed previous SSU rRNA analyses that bacteria dominate the metagenome of both mat types. Eukaryotes comprised less than 13% of the metagenomes and were rich in sequences associated with nematodes and heterotrophic protists. Comparative genomic analyses of the functional genes revealed extensive similarities in most of the subsystems between the nonlithifying and lithifying mat types. The one exception was an increase in the relative abundance of certain genes associated with carbohydrate metabolism in the lithifying Type 3 mats. Specifically, genes associated with the degradation of carbohydrates commonly found in exopolymeric substances, such as hexoses, deoxy- and acidic sugars were found. The genetic differences in carbohydrate metabolisms between the two mat types were confirmed using metabolic microarrays. Lithifying mats had a significant increase in diversity and utilization of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur substrates.
The two stromatolitic mat types retained similar microbial communities, functional diversity and many genetic components within their metagenomes. However, there were major differences detected in the activity and genetic pathways of organic carbon utilization. These differences provide a strong link between the metagenome and the physiology of the mats, as well as new insights into the biological processes associated with carbonate precipitation in modern marine stromatolites.
PMCID: PMC3360630  PMID: 22662280
16.  Ancient Microbes from Halite Fluid Inclusions: Optimized Surface Sterilization and DNA Extraction 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(6):e20683.
Fluid inclusions in evaporite minerals (halite, gypsum, etc.) potentially preserve genetic records of microbial diversity and changing environmental conditions of Earth's hydrosphere for nearly one billion years. Here we describe a robust protocol for surface sterilization and retrieval of DNA from fluid inclusions in halite that, unlike previously published methods, guarantees removal of potentially contaminating surface-bound DNA. The protocol involves microscopic visualization of cell structures, deliberate surface contamination followed by surface sterilization with acid and bleach washes, and DNA extraction using Amicon centrifugal filters. Methods were verified on halite crystals of four different ages from Saline Valley, California (modern, 36 ka, 64 ka, and 150 ka), with retrieval of algal and archaeal DNA, and characterization of the algal community using ITS1 sequences. The protocol we developed opens up new avenues for study of ancient microbial ecosystems in fluid inclusions, understanding microbial evolution across geological time, and investigating the antiquity of life on earth and other parts of the solar system.
PMCID: PMC3111412  PMID: 21694765
17.  Geological constraints on detecting the earliest life on Earth: a perspective from the Early Archaean (older than 3.7 Gyr) of southwest Greenland 
At greater than 3.7 Gyr, Earth's oldest known supracrustal rocks, comprised dominantly of mafic igneous with less common sedimentary units including banded iron formation (BIF), are exposed in southwest Greenland. Regionally, they were intruded by younger tonalites, and then both were intensely dynamothermally metamorphosed to granulite facies (the highest pressures and temperatures generally encountered in the Earth's crust during metamorphism) in the Archaean and subsequently at lower grades until about 1500 Myr ago. Claims for the first preserved life on Earth have been based on the occurrence of greater than 3.8 Gyr isotopically light C occurring as graphite inclusions within apatite crystals from a 5 m thick purported BIF on the island of Akilia. Detailed geologic mapping and observations there indicate that the banding, first claimed to be depositional, is clearly deformational in origin. Furthermore, the mineralogy of the supposed BIF, being dominated by pyroxene, amphibole and quartz, is unlike well-known BIF from the Isua Greenstone Belt (IGB), but resembles enclosing mafic and ultramafic igneous rocks modified by metasomatism and repeated metamorphic recrystallization. This scenario parsimoniously links the geology, whole-rock geochemistry, 2.7 Gyr single crystal zircon ages in the unit, an approximately 1500 Myr age for apatites that lack any graphite, non-MIF sulphur isotopes in the unit and an inconclusive Fe isotope signature. Although both putative body fossils and carbon-12 enriched isotopes in graphite described at Isua are better explained by abiotic processes, more fruitful targets for examining the earliest stages in the emergence of life remain within greater than 3.7 Gyr IGB, which preserves BIF and other rocks that unambiguously formed at Earth's surface.
PMCID: PMC1578730  PMID: 16754603
Archaean; origin of life; Greenland; geochemistry; isotope geochemistry; geology
18.  Comparative Metagenomics of Two Microbial Mats at Cuatro Ciénegas Basin I: Ancient Lessons on How to Cope with an Environment Under Severe Nutrient Stress 
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):648-658.
The Cuatro Ciénegas Basin (CCB) is an oasis in the desert of Mexico characterized by low phosphorus availability and by its great diversity of microbial mats. We compared the metagenomes of two aquatic microbial mats from the CCB with different nutrient limitations. We observed that the red mat was P-limited and dominated by Pseudomonas, while the green mat was N-limited and had higher species richness, with Proteobacteria and Cyanobacteria as the most abundant phyla. From their gene content, we deduced that both mats were very metabolically diverse despite their use of different strategies to cope with their respective environments. The red mat was found to be mostly heterotrophic, while the green mat was more autotrophic. The red mat had a higher number of transporters in general, including transporters of cellobiose and osmoprotectants. We suggest that generalists with plastic genomes dominate the red mat, while specialists with minimal genomes dominate the green mat. Nutrient limitation was a common scenario on the early planet; despite this, biogeochemical cycles were performed, and as a result the planet changed. The metagenomes of microbial mats from the CCB show the different strategies a community can use to cope with oligotrophy and persist. Key Words: Microbial mats—Metagenomics—Metabolism. Astrobiology 12, 648–658.
PMCID: PMC3426886  PMID: 22920515
19.  A genomic timescale of prokaryote evolution: insights into the origin of methanogenesis, phototrophy, and the colonization of land 
The timescale of prokaryote evolution has been difficult to reconstruct because of a limited fossil record and complexities associated with molecular clocks and deep divergences. However, the relatively large number of genome sequences currently available has provided a better opportunity to control for potential biases such as horizontal gene transfer and rate differences among lineages. We assembled a data set of sequences from 32 proteins (~7600 amino acids) common to 72 species and estimated phylogenetic relationships and divergence times with a local clock method.
Our phylogenetic results support most of the currently recognized higher-level groupings of prokaryotes. Of particular interest is a well-supported group of three major lineages of eubacteria (Actinobacteria, Deinococcus, and Cyanobacteria) that we call Terrabacteria and associate with an early colonization of land. Divergence time estimates for the major groups of eubacteria are between 2.5–3.2 billion years ago (Ga) while those for archaebacteria are mostly between 3.1–4.1 Ga. The time estimates suggest a Hadean origin of life (prior to 4.1 Ga), an early origin of methanogenesis (3.8–4.1 Ga), an origin of anaerobic methanotrophy after 3.1 Ga, an origin of phototrophy prior to 3.2 Ga, an early colonization of land 2.8–3.1 Ga, and an origin of aerobic methanotrophy 2.5–2.8 Ga.
Our early time estimates for methanogenesis support the consideration of methane, in addition to carbon dioxide, as a greenhouse gas responsible for the early warming of the Earths' surface. Our divergence times for the origin of anaerobic methanotrophy are compatible with highly depleted carbon isotopic values found in rocks dated 2.8–2.6 Ga. An early origin of phototrophy is consistent with the earliest bacterial mats and structures identified as stromatolites, but a 2.6 Ga origin of cyanobacteria suggests that those Archean structures, if biologically produced, were made by anoxygenic photosynthesizers. The resistance to desiccation of Terrabacteria and their elaboration of photoprotective compounds suggests that the common ancestor of this group inhabited land. If true, then oxygenic photosynthesis may owe its origin to terrestrial adaptations.
PMCID: PMC533871  PMID: 15535883
20.  The Apparent Involvement of ANMEs in Mineral Dependent Methane Oxidation, as an Analog for Possible Martian Methanotrophy 
Life : Open Access Journal  2011;1(1):19-33.
On Earth, marine anaerobic methane oxidation (AOM) can be driven by the microbial reduction of sulfate, iron, and manganese. Here, we have further characterized marine sediment incubations to determine if the mineral dependent methane oxidation involves similar microorganisms to those found for sulfate-dependent methane oxidation. Through FISH and FISH-SIMS analyses using 13C and 15N labeled substrates, we find that the most active cells during manganese dependent AOM are primarily mixed and mixed-cluster aggregates of archaea and bacteria. Overall, our control experiment using sulfate showed two active bacterial clusters, two active shell aggregates, one active mixed aggregate, and an active archaeal sarcina, the last of which appeared to take up methane in the absence of a closely-associated bacterial partner. A single example of a shell aggregate appeared to be active in the manganese incubation, along with three mixed aggregates and an archaeal sarcina. These results suggest that the microorganisms (e.g., ANME-2) found active in the manganese-dependent incubations are likely capable of sulfate-dependent AOM. Similar metabolic flexibility for Martian methanotrophs would mean that the same microbial groups could inhabit a diverse set of Martian mineralogical crustal environments. The recently discovered seasonal Martian plumes of methane outgassing could be coupled to the reduction of abundant surface sulfates and extensive metal oxides, providing a feasible metabolism for present and past Mars. In an optimistic scenario Martian methanotrophy consumes much of the periodic methane released supporting on the order of 10,000 microbial cells per cm2 of Martian surface. Alternatively, most of the methane released each year could be oxidized through an abiotic process requiring biological methane oxidation to be more limited. If under this scenario, 1% of this methane flux were oxidized by biology in surface soils or in subsurface aquifers (prior to release), a total of about 1020 microbial cells could be supported through methanotrophy with the cells concentrated in regions of methane release.
PMCID: PMC4187123  PMID: 25382054
Archaea; methane; methanotrophy; Mars; subsurface biosphere
21.  Microbiology of Methanogenesis in Thermal, Volcanic Environments 
Journal of Bacteriology  1980;143(1):432-440.
Microbial methanogenesis was examined in thermal waters, muds, and decomposing algal-bacterial mats associated with volcanic activity in Yellowstone National Park. Radioactive tracer studies with [14C]glucose, acetate, or carbonate and enrichment culture techniques demonstrated that methanogenesis occurred at temperatures near 70°C but below 80°C and correlated with hydrogen production from either geothermal processes or microbial fermentation. Three Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum strains (YT1, YTA, and YTC) isolated from diverse volcanic habitats differed from the neotype sewage strain ΔH in deoxyribonucleic acid guanosine-plus-cytosine content and immunological properties. Microbial methanogenesis was characterized in more detail at a 65°C site in the Octopus Spring algal-bacterial mat ecosystem. Here methanogenesis was active, was associated with anaerobic microbial decomposition of biomass, occurred concomitantly with detectable microbial hydrogen formation, and displayed a temperature activity optimum near 65°C. Enumeration studies estimated more than 109 chemoorganotrophic hydrolytic bacteria and 106 chemolithotrophic methanogenic bacteria per g (dry weight) of algal-bacterial mat. Enumeration, enrichment, and isolation studies revealed that the microbial population was predominantly rod shaped and asporogenous. A prevalent chemoorganotrophic organism in the mat that was isolated from an end dilution tube was a taxonomically undescribed gram-negative obligate anaerobe (strain HTB2), whereas a prevalent chemolithotrophic methanogen isolated from an end dilution tube was identified as M. thermoautotrophicum (strain YTB). Taxonomically recognizable obligate anaerobes that were isolated from glucose and xylose enrichment cultures included Thermoanaerobium brockii strain HTB and Clostridium thermohydrosulfuricum strain 39E. The nutritional properties, growth temperature optima, growth rates, and fermentation products of thermophilic bacterial strains 39E, HTB2, and YTB were determined.
PMCID: PMC294264  PMID: 7400098
22.  Anoxygenic Photosynthesis and Nitrogen Fixation by a Microbial Mat Community in a Bahamian Hypersaline Lagoon 
Simultaneous measurements of photosynthesis (both oxygenic and anoxygenic) and N(inf2) fixation were conducted to discern the relationships between photosynthesis, N(inf2) fixation, and environmental factors potentially regulating these processes in microbial mats in a tropical hypersaline lagoon (Salt Pond, San Salvador Island, Bahamas). Major photoautotrophs included cyanobacteria, purple phototrophic bacteria, and diatoms. Chemosystematic photopigments were used as indicators of the relative abundance of mat phototrophs. Experimental manipulations consisted of light and dark incubations of intact mat samples exposed to the photosystem II inhibitor DCMU [3-(3,4-dichlorophenyl)-1,1-dimethylurea], a dissolved organic carbon source (D-glucose), and normal seawater (37(permil)). Photosynthetic rates were measured by both O(inf2) and (sup14)C methods, and nitrogenase activity (NA) was estimated by the acetylene reduction assay. Moderate reductions in salinity (from 74 to 37(permil)) had no measurable effect on photosynthesis, O(inf2) consumption, or NA. CO(inf2) fixation in DCMU-amended samples was (symbl)25% of that in the control (nonamended) samples and demonstrated photosynthetic activity by anoxygenic phototrophs. NA in DCMU-amended samples, which was consistently higher (by a factor of 2 to 3) than the other (light and dark) treatments, was also attributed to purple phototrophic bacteria. The ecological implication is that N(inf2) fixation by anoxygenic phototrophs (purple phototrophic bacteria and possibly cyanobacteria) may be regulated by the activity of oxygenic phototrophs (cyanobacteria and diatoms). Consortial interactions that enhance the physiological plasticity of the mat community may be a key for optimizing production, N(inf2) fixation, and persistence in these extreme environments.
PMCID: PMC1389512  PMID: 16535506
23.  Light-Dependant Biostabilisation of Sediments by Stromatolite Assemblages 
PLoS ONE  2008;3(9):e3176.
For the first time we have investigated the natural ecosystem engineering capacity of stromatolitic microbial assemblages. Stromatolites are laminated sedimentary structures formed by microbial activity and are considered to have dominated the shallows of the Precambrian oceans. Their fossilised remains are the most ancient unambiguous record of early life on earth. Stromatolites can therefore be considered as the first recognisable ecosystems on the planet. However, while many discussions have taken place over their structure and form, we have very little information on their functional ecology and how such assemblages persisted despite strong eternal forcing from wind and waves. The capture and binding of sediment is clearly a critical feature for the formation and persistence of stromatolite assemblages. Here, we investigated the ecosystem engineering capacity of stromatolitic microbial assemblages with respect to their ability to stabilise sediment using material from one of the few remaining living stromatolite systems (Highborne Cay, Bahamas). It was shown that the most effective assemblages could produce a rapid (12–24 h) and significant increase in sediment stability that continued in a linear fashion over the period of the experimentation (228 h). Importantly, it was also found that light was required for the assemblages to produce this stabilisation effect and that removal of assemblage into darkness could lead to a partial reversal of the stabilisation. This was attributed to the breakdown of extracellular polymeric substances under anaerobic conditions. These data were supported by microelectrode profiling of oxygen and calcium. The structure of the assemblages as they formed was visualised by low-temperature scanning electron microscopy and confocal laser microscopy. These results have implications for the understanding of early stromatolite development and highlight the potential importance of the evolution of photosynthesis in the mat forming process. The evolution of photosynthesis may have provided an important advance for the niche construction activity of microbial systems and the formation and persistence of the stromatolites which came to dominate shallow coastal environments for 80% of the biotic history of the earth.
PMCID: PMC2526175  PMID: 18781202
24.  Comparative Metagenomics of Two Microbial Mats at Cuatro Ciénegas Basin II: Community Structure and Composition in Oligotrophic Environments 
Astrobiology  2012;12(7):659-673.
Microbial mats are self-sustained, functionally complex ecosystems that make good models for the understanding of past and present microbial ecosystems as well as putative extraterrestrial ecosystems. Ecological theory suggests that the composition of these communities might be affected by nutrient availability and disturbance frequency. We characterized two microbial mats from two contrasting environments in the oligotrophic Cuatro Ciénegas Basin: a permanent green pool and a red desiccation pond. We analyzed their taxonomic structure and composition by means of 16S rRNA clone libraries and metagenomics and inferred their metabolic role by the analysis of functional traits in the most abundant organisms. Both mats showed a high diversity with metabolically diverse members and strongly differed in structure and composition. The green mat had a higher species richness and evenness than the red mat, which was dominated by a lineage of Pseudomonas. Autotrophs were abundant in the green mat, and heterotrophs were abundant in the red mat. When comparing with other mats and stromatolites, we found that taxonomic composition was not shared at species level but at order level, which suggests environmental filtering for phylogenetically conserved functional traits with random selection of particular organisms. The highest diversity and composition similarity was observed among systems from stable environments, which suggests that disturbance regimes might affect diversity more strongly than nutrient availability, since oligotrophy does not appear to prevent the establishment of complex and diverse microbial mat communities. These results are discussed in light of the search for extraterrestrial life. Key Words: Cuatro Ciénegas—Metagenomics—Microbial mats—Oligotrophic—Phosphorus limitation—Stromatolites. Astrobiology 12, 659–673.
PMCID: PMC3426889  PMID: 22920516
25.  Archaean metabolic evolution of microbial mats 
Microbial mats of coexisting bacteria and archaea date back to the early Archaean: many of the major steps in early evolution probably took place within them. The earliest mats may have formed as biofilms of cooperative chemolithotrophs in hyperthermophile settings, with microbial exploitation of diversifying niches. Anoxygenic photosynthesis using bacteriochlorophyll could have allowed mats, including green gliding bacteria, to colonize anaerobic shallow-water mesothermophile habitats. Exploitation of the Calvin–Benson cycle by purple bacteria allowed diversification of microbial mats, with some organisms in more aerobic habitats, while green sulphur bacteria specialized in anaerobic niches. Cyanobacterial evolution led to more complex mats and plankton, allowing widespread colonization of the globe and the creation of further aerobic habitat. Microbial mat structure may reflect this evolutionary development in broad terms, with anaerobic lower levels occupied by archaeal and bacterial respirers, fermenters and green bacteria, while the higher levels contain aerobic purple bacteria and are dominated by cyanobacteria. A possible origin of eukaryotes is from a fusion of symbiotic partners living across a redox boundary in a mat. The geological record of Archaean mats may be present as isotopic fingerprints: with the presence of cyanobacteria, mats may have had a nearly modern structure as early as 3.5 Ga ago (1 Ga = 109 years).
PMCID: PMC1690475

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