Methanocaldococcus jannaschii is a hypertheromphilic, strictly hydrogenotrophic, methanogenic archaeon of ancient lineage isolated from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent. It requires sulfide for growth. Sulfite is inhibitory to the methanogens. Yet, we observed that M. jannaschii grows and produces methane with sulfite as the sole sulfur source. We found that in this organism sulfite induces a novel, highly active, coenzyme F(420)-dependent sulfite reductase (Fsr) with a cell extract specific activity of 0.57 mumol sulfite reduced min(-1) mg(-1) protein. The cellular level of Fsr protein is comparable to that of methyl-coenzyme M reductase, an enzyme essential for methanogenesis and a possible target for sulfite. Purified Fsr reduces sulfite to sulfide using reduced F(420) (H(2)F(420)) as the electron source (K(m): sulfite, 12 microm; H(2)F(420), 21 microm). Therefore, Fsr provides M. jannaschii an anabolic ability and protection from sulfite toxicity. The N-terminal half of the 70-kDa Fsr polypeptide represents a H(2)F(420) dehydrogenase and the C-terminal half a dissimilatory-type siroheme sulfite reductase, and Fsr catalyzes the corresponding partial reactions. Previously described sulfite reductases use nicotinamides and cytochromes as electron carriers. Therefore, this is the first report of a coenzyme F(420)-dependent sulfite reductase. Fsr homologs were found only in Methanopyrus kandleri and Methanothermobacter thermautotrophicus, two strictly hydrogenotrophic thermophilic methanogens. fsr is the likely ancestor of H(2)F(420) dehydrogenases, which serve as electron input units for membrane-based energy transduction systems of certain late evolving archaea, and dissimilatory sulfite reductases of bacteria and archaea. fsr could also have arisen from lateral gene transfer and gene fusion events.