Submarine hydrothermal vents are model systems for the Archaean Earth environment, and some sites maintain conditions that may have favored the formation and evolution of cellular life. Vents are typified by rapid fluctuations in temperature and redox potential that impose a strong selective pressure on resident microbial communities. Nautilia profundicola strain Am-H is a moderately thermophilic, deeply-branching Epsilonproteobacterium found free-living at hydrothermal vents and is a member of the microbial mass on the dorsal surface of vent polychaete, Alvinella pompejana. Analysis of the 1.7-Mbp genome of N. profundicola uncovered adaptations to the vent environment—some unique and some shared with other Epsilonproteobacterial genomes. The major findings included: (1) a diverse suite of hydrogenases coupled to a relatively simple electron transport chain, (2) numerous stress response systems, (3) a novel predicted nitrate assimilation pathway with hydroxylamine as a key intermediate, and (4) a gene (rgy) encoding the hallmark protein for hyperthermophilic growth, reverse gyrase. Additional experiments indicated that expression of rgy in strain Am-H was induced over 100-fold with a 20°C increase above the optimal growth temperature of this bacterium and that closely related rgy genes are present and expressed in bacterial communities residing in geographically distinct thermophilic environments. N. profundicola, therefore, is a model Epsilonproteobacterium that contains all the genes necessary for life in the extreme conditions widely believed to reflect those in the Archaean biosphere—anaerobic, sulfur, H2- and CO2-rich, with fluctuating redox potentials and temperatures. In addition, reverse gyrase appears to be an important and common adaptation for mesophiles and moderate thermophiles that inhabit ecological niches characterized by rapid and frequent temperature fluctuations and, as such, can no longer be considered a unique feature of hyperthermophiles.
Extreme environments, such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents, found 2,500 meters below the ocean surface, support large macrofaunal communities via microbially mediated carbon fixation processes using chemicals (chemoautotrophy) rather than light (photoautotrophy). The genome of one such model chemoautotrophic microbe, N. profundicola, was sequenced and described in this work. N. profundicola, distantly related to the pathogenic Helicobacter and Campylobacter species, contains a number of genes and pathways predicted to be important in DNA repair, environmental sensing, and metabolism, which are novel to either its subdivision or to all microbes. The genes and deduced metabolic pathways include several hydrogen uptake and release systems as well as a novel predicted nitrogen assimilation pathway. One gene involved in DNA repair, reverse gyrase, was thought to be a hallmark protein in hyperthermophiles, which are microbes that grow above 80°C. We found this gene to be highly expressed at 65°C, over 20°C above the optimal growth temperature of this organism. Therefore, the genome of this model deep-sea hydrothermal vent chemoautotroph may reflect what is required for life in an extreme environment, hypothesized to be similar to early earth conditions.