Metatranscriptomic analysis of a high-sulfide aquatic spring reveals insights into sulfur cycling and unexpected aerobic metabolism

PeerJ. 2015 Sep 22;3:e1259. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1259. eCollection 2015.


Zodletone spring is a sulfide-rich spring in southwestern Oklahoma characterized by shallow, microoxic, light-exposed spring water overlaying anoxic sediments. Previously, culture-independent 16S rRNA gene based diversity surveys have revealed that Zodletone spring source sediments harbor a highly diverse microbial community, with multiple lineages putatively involved in various sulfur-cycling processes. Here, we conducted a metatranscriptomic survey of microbial populations in Zodletone spring source sediments to characterize the relative prevalence and importance of putative phototrophic, chemolithotrophic, and heterotrophic microorganisms in the sulfur cycle, the identity of lineages actively involved in various sulfur cycling processes, and the interaction between sulfur cycling and other geochemical processes at the spring source. Sediment samples at the spring's source were taken at three different times within a 24-h period for geochemical analyses and RNA sequencing. In depth mining of datasets for sulfur cycling transcripts revealed major sulfur cycling pathways and taxa involved, including an unexpected potential role of Actinobacteria in sulfide oxidation and thiosulfate transformation. Surprisingly, transcripts coding for the cyanobacterial Photosystem II D1 protein, methane monooxygenase, and terminal cytochrome oxidases were encountered, indicating that genes for oxygen production and aerobic modes of metabolism are actively being transcribed, despite below-detectable levels (<1 µM) of oxygen in source sediment. Results highlight transcripts involved in sulfur, methane, and oxygen cycles, propose that oxygenic photosynthesis could support aerobic methane and sulfide oxidation in anoxic sediments exposed to sunlight, and provide a viewpoint of microbial metabolic lifestyles under conditions similar to those seen during late Archaean and Proterozoic eons.

Keywords: Actinobacteria; Biodiversity; Metatranscriptomics; Methane oxidation; Microbial mats; Oxygenic photosynthesis; Sulfide oxidation; Sulfur cycle; Sulfur spring.

Grant support

This work was supported by a grant from National Science Foundation through the Microbial Observatories program (#EF-0801815). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.