Microorganisms have evolved a spectacular diversity of metabolisms, some of which allow them to overcome environmental constraints, utilize abundant but inaccessible resources and drive nutrient cycling in various ecosystems. The termite hindgut microbial community is optimized to metabolize wood, and in recent years, the in situ physiological and ecological functions of community members have been researched. Spirochetes are abundant in the termite gut, and herein, putative aromatic meta-cleavage pathway genes typical of aerobic pseudomonads were located in genomes of homoacetogenic termite hindgut 'anaerobes', Treponema primitia str. ZAS-1 and ZAS-2. Phylogenetic analyses suggest the T. primitia catechol 2,3-dioxygenase and several other essential meta-pathway genes were acquired from an α-proteobacterium in the distant past to augment several genes T. primitia acquired from anaerobic firmicutes that do not directly catabolize aromatics but can contribute to the final pathway steps. Further, transcripts for each meta-pathway gene were expressed in strictly anaerobic cultures of T. primitia str. ZAS-2 indicative of constitutive pathway expression. Also, the addition of catechol + O(2) to T. primitia liquid cultures resulted in the transient accumulation of trace amounts of the yellow ring cleavage product, hydroxymuconic semialdehyde. This is the first evidence of aromatic ring cleavage in the phylum (division) Spirochetes. Results also support a possible role for T. primitia in termite hindgut O(2) /lignin aromatic monomer metabolism. Potential O(2) -dependent yet nonrespiratory microbial metabolisms have heretofore been overlooked and warrant further investigation. These metabolisms could describe the degradation of plant-derived and other aromatics in microoxic environments and contribute significantly to carbon turnover.
Keywords: aromatic metabolism; catechol 2,3-dioxygenase; meta-cleavage pathway; spirochete; symbiosis; termite hindgut microbial community.
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.