Cyanobacteria were responsible for the oxygenation of the ancient atmosphere; however, the evolution of this phylum is enigmatic, as relatives have not been characterized. Here we use whole genome reconstruction of human fecal and subsurface aquifer metagenomic samples to obtain complete genomes for members of a new candidate phylum sibling to Cyanobacteria, for which we propose the designation ‘Melainabacteria’. Metabolic analysis suggests that the ancestors to both lineages were non-photosynthetic, anaerobic, motile, and obligately fermentative. Cyanobacterial light sensing may have been facilitated by regulators present in the ancestor of these lineages. The subsurface organism has the capacity for nitrogen fixation using a nitrogenase distinct from that in Cyanobacteria, suggesting nitrogen fixation evolved separately in the two lineages. We hypothesize that Cyanobacteria split from Melainabacteria prior or due to the acquisition of oxygenic photosynthesis. Melainabacteria remained in anoxic zones and differentiated by niche adaptation, including for symbiosis in the mammalian gut.
Microbes are ubiquitous in the world and exist in complex communities called microbiomes that have colonized many environments, including the human gut. Until modern techniques for sequencing nucleic acids became available, many of the organisms found in these microbiomes could not be studied because they could not be cultured in the laboratory. However, advances in sequencing technology have made it possible to study the evolution and properties of these microbes, including their impact on human health.
Bacteria belonging to the phylum Cyanobacteria had a significant effect on the prehistoric Earth because they were the first organisms to produce gaseous oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis, and thus shaped the Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. Early plants took up these bacteria in a symbiotic relationship, and plastids—the organelles in plant cells that perform photosynthesis and produce oxygen–are the descendants of Cyanobacteria.
Organisms evolutionarily related to Cyanobacteria have been found in the human gut and in various aquatic sources, but these bacteria have not been studied because it has not been possible to isolate or culture them. Now, Di Rienzi, Sharon et al. have used modern sequencing techniques to obtain complete genomes for some of these bacteria, which they assign to a new phylum called Melainabacteria.
By analyzing these genomes, Di Rienzi, Sharon et al. were able to make predictions about the cell structure and metabolic abilities of Melainabacteria. Like Cyanobacteria, they have two membranes surrounding the bacterial cell; unlike Cyanobacteria, however, they have flagella that propel them through liquid or across surfaces. Most interestingly, Melainabacteria are not able to perform photosynthesis, but instead produce energy through fermentation and release hydrogen gas that can be consumed by other microorganisms.
The genome of the bacteria isolated from water reveals that it has the capacity to fix nitrogen. Cyanobacteria can also fix atmospheric nitrogen, but the protein complexes used by the two phyla are not related, which suggests that nitrogen fixation evolved after the evolutionary divergence of Cyanobacteria and Melainabacteria.
By exploring previously published datasets of bacterial communities, Di Rienzi, Sharon et al. found that Melainabacteria are common in aquatic habitats. They are also prevalent in the guts of herbivorous mammals and humans with a predominantly vegetarian diet. Melainabacteria from the human gut also synthesize several B and K vitamins, which suggests that these bacteria are beneficial to their host because in addition to aiding with the digestion of plant fibers, they are also a source of vitamins.