Selenium respiration in anaerobic bacteria: Does energy generation pay off?

J Inorg Biochem. 2021 Sep;222:111509. doi: 10.1016/j.jinorgbio.2021.111509. Epub 2021 Jun 5.


Selenium (Se) respiration in bacteria was revealed for the first time at the end of 1980s. Although thermodynamically-favorable, energy-dense and documented in phylogenetically-diverse bacteria, this metabolic process appears to be accompanied by a number of challenges and numerous unanswered questions. Selenium oxyanions, SeO42- and SeO32-, are reduced to elemental Se (Se0) through anaerobic respiration, the end product being solid and displaying a considerable size (up to 500 nm) at the bacterial scale. Compared to other electron acceptors used in anaerobic respiration (e.g. N, S, Fe, Mn, and As), Se is one of the few elements whose end product is solid. Furthermore, unlike other known bacterial intracellular accumulations such as volutin (inorganic polyphosphate), S0, glycogen or magnetite, Se0 has not been shown to play a nutritional or ecological role for its host. In the context of anaerobic respiration of Se oxyanions, biogenic Se0 appears to be a by-product, a waste that needs proper handling, and this raises the question of the evolutionary implications of this process. Why would bacteria use a respiratory substrate that is useful, in the first place, and then highly detrimental? Interestingly, in certain artificial ecosystems (e.g. upflow bioreactors) Se0 might help bacterial cells to increase their density and buoyancy and thus avoid biomass wash-out, ensuring survival. This review article provides an in-depth analysis of selenium respiration (model selenium respiring bacteria, thermodynamics, respiratory enzymes, and genetic determinants), complemented by an extensive discussion about the evolutionary implications and the properties of biogenic Se0 using published and original/unpublished results.

Keywords: Anaerobic respiration; Biogenic nanoparticles; Biomineralization; Respiratory enzymes; Selenium.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria, Anaerobic / enzymology
  • Bacteria, Anaerobic / metabolism*
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Respiration / physiology*
  • Oxidoreductases / metabolism
  • Selenium / metabolism*
  • Thermodynamics


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Oxidoreductases
  • Selenium