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Life close to the thermodynamic limit: how methanogenic archaea conserve energy.

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Department of Biological Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI 53211, USA.


Methane-forming archaea are strictly anaerobic, ancient microbes that are widespread in nature. These organisms are commonly found in anaerobic environments such as rumen, anaerobic sediments of rivers and lakes, hyperthermal deep sea vents and even hypersaline environments. From an evolutionary standpoint they are close to the origin of life. Common to all methanogens is the biological production of methane by a unique pathway currently only found in archaea. Methanogens can grow on only a limited number of substrates such as H(2) + CO(2), formate, methanol and other methyl group-containing substrates and some on acetate. The free energy change associated with methanogenesis from these compounds allows for the synthesis of 1 (acetate) to a maximum of only 2 mol of ATP under standard conditions while under environmental conditions less than one ATP can be synthesized. Therefore, methanogens live close to the thermodynamic limit. To cope with this problem, they have evolved elaborate mechanisms of energy conservation using both protons and sodium ions as the coupling ion in one pathway. These energy conserving mechanisms are comprised of unique enzymes, cofactors and electron carriers present only in methanogens. This review will summarize the current knowledge of energy conservation of methanogens and focus on recent insights into structure and function of ion translocating enzymes found in these organisms.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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