But something didn't add up right. A lot of the microorganisms had equipment to breathe both iron and sulfur. This requires two completely different enzymatic mechanisms, and it's evolutionarily expensive for microbes to keep the genes necessary to carry out both processes. Why would they bother, if sulfur was so rarely involved?
The team decided to redo the energy calculations assuming an alkaline environment"Older and deeper aquifers tend to be more alkaline than pH-neutral surface waters," said Argonne coauthor Ken Kemnerand found that in alkaline environments, it gets harder and harder to get energy out of iron.
"Breathing sulfur, on the other hand, becomes even more favorable in alkaline conditions," Flynn said.
The team reinforced this hypothesis in the lab with bacteria under simulated aquifer conditions. The bacteria, Shewanella oneidensis, can normally breathe both iron and sulfur. When the pH got as high as 9, however, it could breathe sulfur, but not iron.
There was still the question of where microorganisms like Shewanella could find sulfur in their native habitat, where it appeared to be scarce.
The answer came from another group of microorganisms that breathe a different, soluble form of sulfur called sulfate, which is commonly found in groundwater alongside iron minerals. These microbes exhale sulfide, which reacts with iron minerals to form solid sulfur and reactive iron. The team believes this sulfur is used up almost immediately by Shewanella and its relatives.
"This explains why we don't see much sulfur at any fixed point in time, but the amount of energy cycling through it could be huge," Kemner said.
Indeed, when the team put iron-breathing bacteria in a highly alkaline lab environment without any sulfur, the bacteria did not produce any reduced iron.
"This hypothesis runs counter to the prevailing th
|Contact: Brian Grabowski|
DOE/Argonne National Laboratory