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Martin Könneke
Vol. 111, No. 22, 2014, Pages: 8239–8244

Ammonia-oxidizing archaea use the most energy-efficient aerobic pathway for CO2 fixation

Martin Könneke, Daniel M. Schubert, Philip C. Brown, Michael Hügler, Sonja Standfest, Thomas chwander, Lennart Schada von Borzyskowski, Tobias J. Erb, David A. Stahl, and Ivan A. Berg

Organic Geochemistry Group, MARUM–Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, 28334 Bremen, Germany.


Archaea of the phylum Thaumarchaeota are among the most abundant prokaryotes on Earth and are widely distributed in marine, terrestrial, and geothermal environments. All studied Thaumarchaeota couple the oxidation of ammonia at extremely low concentrations with carbon fixation. As the predominant nitrifiers in the ocean and in various soils, ammonia-oxidizing archaea contribute significantly to the global nitrogen and carbon cycles. Here we provide biochemical evidence that thaumarchaeal ammonia oxidizers assimilate inorganic carbon via a modified version of the autotrophic hydroxypropionate/hydroxybutyrate cycle of Crenarchaeota that is far more energy efficient than any other aerobic autotrophic pathway. The identified genes of this cycle were found in the genomes of all sequenced representatives of the phylum Thaumarchaeota, indicating the environmental significance of this efficient CO2-fixation pathway. Comparative phylogenetic analysis of proteins of this pathway suggests that the hydroxypropionate/hydroxybutyrate cycle emerged independently in Crenarchaeota and Thaumarchaeota, thus supporting the hypothesis of an early evolutionary separation of both archaeal phyla. We conclude that high efficiency of anabolism exemplified by this autotrophic cycle perfectly suits the lifestyle of ammonia-oxidizing archaea, which thrive at a constantly low energy supply, thus offering a biochemical explanation for their ecological success in nutrient-limited environments.


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