Bridging the membrane lipid divide: bacteria of the FCB group superphylum have the potential to synthesize archaeal ether lipids

ISME J. 2021 Jan;15(1):168-182. doi: 10.1038/s41396-020-00772-2. Epub 2020 Sep 14.


Archaea synthesize membranes of isoprenoid lipids that are ether-linked to glycerol-1-phosphate (G1P), while Bacteria/Eukarya produce membranes consisting of fatty acids ester-bound to glycerol-3-phosphate (G3P). This dichotomy in membrane lipid composition (i.e., the 'lipid divide') is believed to have arisen after the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA). A leading hypothesis is that LUCA possessed a heterochiral 'mixed archaeal/bacterial membrane'. However, no natural microbial representatives supporting this scenario have been shown to exist today. Here, we demonstrate that bacteria of the Fibrobacteres-Chlorobi-Bacteroidetes (FCB) group superphylum encode a putative archaeal pathway for ether-bound isoprenoid membrane lipids in addition to the bacterial fatty acid membrane pathway. Key genes were expressed in the environment and their recombinant expression in Escherichia coli resulted in the formation of a 'mixed archaeal/bacterial membrane'. Genomic evidence and biochemical assays suggest that the archaeal-like lipids of members of the FCB group could possess either a G1P or G3P stereochemistry. Our results support the existence of 'mixed membranes' in natural environments and their stability over a long period in evolutionary history, thereby bridging a once-thought fundamental divide in biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Archaea* / genetics
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Ether
  • Ethers
  • Membrane Lipids*


  • Ethers
  • Membrane Lipids
  • Ether