It is generally considered that sulphur reduction was one of the earliest forms of microbial respiration, because the known microorganisms that are most closely related to the last common ancestor of modern life are primarily anaerobic, sulphur-reducing hyperthermophiles. However, geochemical evidence indicates that Fe(III) is more likely than sulphur to have been the first external electron acceptor of global significance in microbial metabolism. Here we show that Archaea and Bacteria that are most closely related to the last common ancestor can reduce Fe(III) to Fe(II) and conserve energy to support growth from this respiration. Surprisingly, even Thermotoga maritima, previously considered to have only a fermentative metabolism, could grow as a respiratory organism when Fe(III) was provided as an electron acceptor. These results provide microbiological evidence that Fe(III) reduction could have been an important process on early Earth and suggest that microorganisms might contribute to Fe(III) reduction in modern hot biospheres. Furthermore, our discovery that hyperthermophiles that had previously been thought to require sulphur for cultivation can instead be grown without the production of toxic and corrosive sulphide, should aid biochemical investigations of these poorly understood organisms.