Symbioses between marine animals and aerobic methane-oxidizing bacteria are found at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps in the deep sea where reduced, methane-rich fluids mix with the surrounding oxidized seawater. These habitats are 'oases' in the otherwise nutrient-poor deep sea, where entire ecosystems are fueled by microbial chemosynthesis. By associating with bacteria that gain energy from the oxidation of CH4 with O2 , the animal host is indirectly able to gain nutrition from methane, an energy source that is otherwise only available to methanotrophic microorganisms. The host, in turn, provides its symbionts with continuous access to both electron acceptors and donors that are only available at a narrow oxic - anoxic interface for free-living methanotrophs. Symbiotic methane oxidizers have resisted all attempts at cultivation, so that all evidence for these symbiotic associations comes from ultrastructural, enzymatic, physiological, stable isotope and molecular biological studies of the symbiotic host tissues. In this review, we present an overview of the habitats and invertebrate hosts in which symbiotic methane oxidizers have been found, and the methods used to investigate these symbioses, focusing on the symbioses of bathymodiolin mussels that have received the most attention among methanotrophic associations.
© 2009 Society for Applied Microbiology and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.