Metabolic Potential and Diversity of the Microbial Communities in a Sulfidic Cave System

Open Access
Mccauley Rench, Rebecca Louise
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
July 21, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Jennifer Macalady, Dissertation Advisor
  • Jennifer Macalady, Committee Chair
  • Maryann Victoria Bruns, Committee Member
  • Christopher Howard House, Committee Chair
  • Lee Kump, Committee Member
  • Frasassi cave system
  • Astrobiology
  • Geomicrobiology
  • Beggiatoa
  • rope-like biofilms
Probing of deep-sea sediments and terrestrial soils has made our lack of knowledge of microbial diversity, metabolism, and structure more evident. In order to further explore these microbial communities, we must investigate subsurface environments. Easily accessible and isolated from surface environments, caves host energy-limited (i.e. no light, anoxic, low organic carbon concentration) ecosystems and microbial communities that may provide insight to subsurface microbial communities. Cave microbial communities may be similar to microbes that would have thrived on Earth, prior to the rise in atmospheric oxygen. My dissertation addresses the taxonomic composition of novel cave microbial communities in Frasassi and the metabolic potential of cave microbes based on metagenomics and the geochemistry of their environment. Additional work completed at Magical Blue Hole, which is a low-light karst environment, is included in Appendix A. In Chapter 2, I discuss the taxonomic community composition of rope-like microbial communities from anoxic cave waters and the geochemistry of their environment. The population structure of microbial communities of unusual rope-like biofilms discovered in the stratified cave lakes of a sulfidic cave system were investigated using genetic markers. Additionally, bulk geochemistry for the cave lakes was measured and thermodynamic conditions affecting the energy availability of the biofilms was explored. Despite the aphotic, anoxic environment, the rope-like biofilms are diverse with high species richness dominated by Bacteria. The dominant species are Deltaproteobacteria, likely acting as sulfate-reducers, and Chloroflexi, which may be organotrophs. Geochemical analyses of bulk water revealed low levels of organic carbon and no detectable nitrate, suggesting sulfate to be the best available electron acceptor. Low levels of methane and hydrogen suggest these may be used as electron donors. The lack of abundant sources of organic carbon suggests these unique rope-like biofilms are dependent on chemolithoautotrophy. A comparison of the Bacterial community to Census of Deep Life (CoDL) amplicons from other sites, suggest these rope-like biofilms are unique as they create a separate group with the closest communities from the Guaymas basin methane seeps and sediment from the coastal regions of the Frisian Island Sylt. Their unique morphology and distinct community composition suggests these biofilms comprise a new type of subsurface microbial population. In Chapter 3, I describe the metabolic potential of one of the rope-like microbial communities (Lago Infinito) from Chapter 2 in detail using annotated bulk and binned metagenomic data. Most microbial populations are limited by the energy available in their surrounding ecosystem and can overcome environmental challenges, such as high salinity or low pH, with abundant energy supply. This would suggest that microbial populations would not survive in low energy environments, however, many such sites exist, such as Lago Infinito. Lago Infinito is a cave lake isolated from surface organic carbon, light, and oxygen in its bottom waters. A rope-like biofilm persists in this environment despite a lack of abundant energy and organic carbon sources. Geochemistry of the surrounding waters suggests very few lithotrophic thermodynamically favorable reactions for this microbial population to thrive on. The lack of organic carbon creates an environment that must rely on primary productivity and carbon fixation, but without an abundant energy source this is unlikely. A survey of carbon fixation genes in the Lago Infinito metagenome reveals an abundance of several autotrophic pathways and is consistent with isotopic data. The Lago Infinito rope-like biofilm is capable of carbon fixation utilizing the Wood-Ljungdahl pathway and/or Calvin Cycle and is using lithotrophic energy metabolisms to drive primary productivity. The Lago Infinito biofilm is an extremely diverse microbial community comprised of autotrophic sulfate-reducing microbes and other metabolically-diverse microorganisms. In Chapter 4, I explore the metabolic potential of Frasassi Beggiatoa spp. based on binned metagenomic sequences. Both marine and freshwater species of Beggiatoa oxidize reduced sulfur species using oxygen, yet the exact pathways for sulfur oxidation are unclear. Marine Beggiatoa spp. have also demonstrated the utilization of nitrate instead of oxygen, but the ability for freshwater Beggiatoa spp. to use nitrate as an electron acceptor is ambiguous. Previous studies of enzyme assays and genomics suggest a variety of enzymes may a play a role, including reverse-type dissimilatory sulfite reductase (rDSR) and heterodisulfide reductase (HDR). We analyzed four metagenomes and found eleven Beggiatoa-like binned genomes from three sample locations in the sulfidic, freshwater environment of the Frasassi caves. The presence of both periplasmic-type (NAP) and membrane-bound (NAR) nitrate reductase and other nitrogen reductase genes were ubiquitous throughout the binned genomes. Genes encoding rDSR and oxidases were also found in several binned genomes. Our analysis suggests the freshwater Beggiatoa spp. of the Frasassi caves are capable of nitrate reduction for energy conservation and supports other studies in which freshwater Beggiatoa strains utilized nitrate. Additionally, we found genes encoding RuBisCO, suggesting these freshwater Beggiatoa spp. are also capable of carbon fixation via the Calvin cycle, making them more similar to most marine Beggiatoa spp. In Appendix A, the variety of microbial populations from Magical Blue Hole, a karst sink hole filled will a mixture of freshwater and seawater rich in sulfide, are photographed and described. Most important of note is that despite light availability below detection limits, the photosynthetic clade of Prosthecochloris is a dominant feature in the biofilm at 33 meters (104 feet).