Superoxide and other reactive oxygen species (ROS) shape microbial communities and drive the transformation of metals and inorganic/organic matter. Taxonomically diverse bacteria and phytoplankton produce extracellular superoxide during laboratory cultivation. Understanding the physiological reasons for extracellular superoxide production by aerobes in the environment is a crucial question yet not fully solved. Here, we showed that iron-starving Arthrobacter sp. QXT-31 (A. QXT-31) secreted a type of siderophore [deferoxamine (DFO)], which provoked extracellular superoxide production by A. QXT-31 during carbon sources-level fluctuation. Several other siderophores also demonstrated similar effects to A. QXT-31. RNA-Seq data hinted that DFO stripped iron from iron-bearing proteins in electron transfer chain (ETC) of metabolically active A. QXT-31, resulting in electron leakage from the electron-rich (resulting from carbon sources metabolism by A. QXT-31) ETC and superoxide production. Considering that most aerobes secrete siderophore(s) and undergo carbon sources-level fluctuation, the superoxide-generation pathway is likely a common pathway by which aerobes produce extracellular superoxide in the environment, thus influencing the microbial community and cycling of elements. Our results pointed that the ubiquitous siderophore might be the potential driving force for the microbial generation of superoxide and other ROS and revealed the important role of iron physiology in microbial ROS generation.
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