Review Article | Published:

The ecology and biotechnology of sulphate-reducing bacteria

Nature Reviews Microbiology volume 6, pages 441454 (2008) | Download Citation

Abstract

Sulphate-reducing bacteria (SRB) are anaerobic microorganisms that use sulphate as a terminal electron acceptor in, for example, the degradation of organic compounds. They are ubiquitous in anoxic habitats, where they have an important role in both the sulphur and carbon cycles. SRB can cause a serious problem for industries, such as the offshore oil industry, because of the production of sulphide, which is highly reactive, corrosive and toxic. However, these organisms can also be beneficial by removing sulphate and heavy metals from waste streams. Although SRB have been studied for more than a century, it is only with the recent emergence of new molecular biological and genomic techniques that we have begun to obtain detailed information on their way of life.

Key points

  • Sulphate reducers have the unique ability to respire using sulphate as an electron acceptor. Sulphate-reducing bacteria and archaea are ubiquitous in the environment. The sulphate reducers that have been isolated and described thus far can be divided into seven phylogenetic lineages, five within the Bacteria and two within the Archaea. Most sulphate reducers belong to approximately 23 genera, with the Gram-negative bacteria belonging to the Deltaproteobacteria and the Gram-positive bacteria within the Clostridia.

  • Sulphate reducers can thrive in a broad range of environmental conditions. They have been detected in shallow marine and freshwater sediments and in deep subsurface environments, such as oil wells, hydrothermal vents and mud volcanoes. They occur in environments with extremely low or high pH, extremely low or high temperature and high or low salt concentrations. They are also present in living organisms, such as ruminants and in the human intestinal tract. In marine worms, they form an intimate relationship with aerobic sulphide-oxidizing bacteria.

  • Sulphate reducers play a key part in the carbon and sulphur cycles. They are extremely versatile with respect to the electron donors and electron acceptors that are used for growth. They can grow in a sulphate-dependent manner using hydrogen and a wide range of organic compounds. However, polymeric compounds (polysaccharides and proteins) are not typically used by sulphate reducers. Although named after their ability to respire using sulphate, other inorganic compounds can also be used as electron acceptors. Some sulphate reducers can even respire with oxygen.

  • In environmental biotechnology, sulphate reducers have an important role. One unwanted effect is the production of hydrogen sulphide in anaerobic digesters that are used for waste and waste-water treatment and its role in the corrosion of iron and steel. However, sulphate reducers are also beneficially used in biotechnological processes to remove heavy metals and oxidized sulphur compounds from gas and water. In nature, sulphate reducers live in close vicinity with other microorganisms, which results in metabolic interactions with other anaerobes. In the presence of sulphate, they compete with methanogens and acetogens for common substrates, such as hydrogen and acetate. In the absence of sulphate, however, sulphate reducers grow acetogenically in syntrophy with methanogens. The complete genomes of different sulphate reducers have been, or are currently being, sequenced. Comparative analysis of these genome sequences will provide important information on their carbon and sulphur metabolism and open up the possibility for functional genomics.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments. We are grateful to L. Robertson, curator of the Beijerinck Museum, for allowing the reproduction of Vibrio desulfuricans. We acknowledge the long-lasting collaboration on sulphur biotechnology between Wageningen University and the Delft University of Technology. A. Janssen and D. Sorokin are thanked for creative discussions. We thank Paques (Balk, The Netherlands) and Shell Global Solutions International B.V. (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) for advice and financial support. Our research was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, division for Earth and Life Sciences and division for Technical Sciences, and the Technology Programme of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

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  1. Department of Biotechnology, Delft University of Technology, Julianalaan 67, 2628 BC Delft, The Netherlands.

    • Gerard Muyzer
    •  & Alfons J. M. Stams
  2. Laboratory of Microbiology, Wageningen University, Dreijenplein 10, 6703 HB, Wageningen, The Netherlands.

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Correspondence to Gerard Muyzer.

Glossary

Chemolithotropic

Metabolism of an organism that obtains energy from inorganic compounds and carbon from carbon dioxide.

Citric acid cycle

A cyclic series of reactions that result in the conversion of acetate to carbon dioxide and NADH.

Acetyl-CoA pathway

A pathway of autotrophic carbon dioxide fixation and acetate oxidation in obligate anaerobes.

Dismutation

The splitting of a chemical compound into two new compounds, one that is more oxidized and one that is more reduced than the original compound.

Syntrophic

Growth of two or more organisms that depend on each other for their growth.

Substrate-level phosphorylation

Synthesis of high-energy phosphate bonds through the reaction of inorganic phosphate with an activated organic substrate.

Homoacetogen

A bacterium that produces acetate as the sole product from sugar fermentation or from hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Acetoclastic methanogen

A methanogen that uses acetate as a substrate to produce methane and carbon dioxide.

Phospholipid fatty acid

A key component of the cellular membrane of living cells that can be used to identify specific groups of microorganisms and to monitor their physiological state.

CARD-FISH

Fluorescence in situ hybridization with horseradish peroxidase-labelled oligonucleotide probes and fluorochrome-labelled tyramides. The tyramides are deposited at the hybridization site, resulting in enhanced fluorescence intensity.

Microautoradiography

A photographic technique to visualize the uptake of radioactive substrates by single cells.

Stable isotope probing

A technique to identify microorganisms in environmental samples that have taken up a stable isotope-labelled substrate.

Niche differentiation

The tendency for coexisting species to differ in their use of resources.

Acid-mine drainage site

Acid water that contains H2SO4 derived from microbial oxidation of sulphidic minerals.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nrmicro1892

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