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Nature. 2015 Oct 22;526(7574):531-5. doi: 10.1038/nature15512. Epub 2015 Sep 16.

Single cell activity reveals direct electron transfer in methanotrophic consortia.

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Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.
Exobiology Branch, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California 94035, USA.
Control and Dynamical Systems, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA.
SETI Institute, Mountain View, California 94034, USA.


Multicellular assemblages of microorganisms are ubiquitous in nature, and the proximity afforded by aggregation is thought to permit intercellular metabolic coupling that can accommodate otherwise unfavourable reactions. Consortia of methane-oxidizing archaea and sulphate-reducing bacteria are a well-known environmental example of microbial co-aggregation; however, the coupling mechanisms between these paired organisms is not well understood, despite the attention given them because of the global significance of anaerobic methane oxidation. Here we examined the influence of interspecies spatial positioning as it relates to biosynthetic activity within structurally diverse uncultured methane-oxidizing consortia by measuring stable isotope incorporation for individual archaeal and bacterial cells to constrain their potential metabolic interactions. In contrast to conventional models of syntrophy based on the passage of molecular intermediates, cellular activities were found to be independent of both species intermixing and distance between syntrophic partners within consortia. A generalized model of electric conductivity between co-associated archaea and bacteria best fit the empirical data. Combined with the detection of large multi-haem cytochromes in the genomes of methanotrophic archaea and the demonstration of redox-dependent staining of the matrix between cells in consortia, these results provide evidence for syntrophic coupling through direct electron transfer.

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