Anaerobic Sulfur Oxidation Underlies Adaptation of a Chemosynthetic Symbiont to Oxic-Anoxic Interfaces

mSystems. 2021 Jun 29;6(3):e0118620. doi: 10.1128/mSystems.01186-20. Epub 2021 May 26.


Chemosynthetic symbioses occur worldwide in marine habitats, but comprehensive physiological studies of chemoautotrophic bacteria thriving on animals are scarce. Stilbonematinae are coated by thiotrophic Gammaproteobacteria. As these nematodes migrate through the redox zone, their ectosymbionts experience varying oxygen concentrations. However, nothing is known about how these variations affect their physiology. Here, by applying omics, Raman microspectroscopy, and stable isotope labeling, we investigated the effect of oxygen on "Candidatus Thiosymbion oneisti." Unexpectedly, sulfur oxidation genes were upregulated in anoxic relative to oxic conditions, but carbon fixation genes and incorporation of 13C-labeled bicarbonate were not. Instead, several genes involved in carbon fixation were upregulated under oxic conditions, together with genes involved in organic carbon assimilation, polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and urea utilization. Furthermore, in the presence of oxygen, stress-related genes were upregulated together with vitamin biosynthesis genes likely necessary to withstand oxidative stress, and the symbiont appeared to proliferate less. Based on its physiological response to oxygen, we propose that "Ca. T. oneisti" may exploit anaerobic sulfur oxidation coupled to denitrification to proliferate in anoxic sand. However, the ectosymbiont would still profit from the oxygen available in superficial sand, as the energy-efficient aerobic respiration would facilitate carbon and nitrogen assimilation. IMPORTANCE Chemoautotrophic endosymbionts are famous for exploiting sulfur oxidization to feed marine organisms with fixed carbon. However, the physiology of thiotrophic bacteria thriving on the surface of animals (ectosymbionts) is less understood. One longstanding hypothesis posits that attachment to animals that migrate between reduced and oxic environments would boost sulfur oxidation, as the ectosymbionts would alternatively access sulfide and oxygen, the most favorable electron acceptor. Here, we investigated the effect of oxygen on the physiology of "Candidatus Thiosymbion oneisti," a gammaproteobacterium which lives attached to marine nematodes inhabiting shallow-water sand. Surprisingly, sulfur oxidation genes were upregulated under anoxic relative to oxic conditions. Furthermore, under anoxia, the ectosymbiont appeared to be less stressed and to proliferate more. We propose that animal-mediated access to oxygen, rather than enhancing sulfur oxidation, would facilitate assimilation of carbon and nitrogen by the ectosymbiont.

Keywords: Gammaproteobacteria; Thiosymbion; anoxia; chemosynthesis; sulfur oxidation; symbiosis; thiotrophic bacteria.