Niche differentiation among sulfur-oxidizing bacterial populations in cave waters

Jennifer L. Macalady
Sharmishtha Dattagupta
Irene Schaperdoth

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The sulfidic Frasassi cave system affords a unique opportunity to investigate niche relationships among sulfur-oxidizing bacteria, including epsilonproteobacterial clades with no cultivated representatives. Oxygen and sulfide concentrations in the cave waters range over more than two orders of magnitude as a result of seasonally and spatially variable dilution of the sulfidic groundwater. A full-cycle rRNA approach was used to quantify dominant populations in biofilms collected in both diluted and undiluted zones. Sulfide concentration profiles within biofilms were obtained in situ using microelectrode voltammetry. Populations in rock-attached streamers depended on the sulfide/oxygen supply ratio of bulk water (r=0.97; P<0.0001). Filamentous epsilonproteobacteria dominated at high sulfide to oxygen ratios (>150), whereas Thiothrix dominated at low ratios (<75). In contrast, Beggiatoa was the dominant group in biofilms at the sediment–water interface regardless of sulfide and oxygen concentrations or supply ratio. Our results highlight the versatility and ecological success of Beggiatoa in diffusion-controlled niches, and demonstrate that high sulfide/oxygen ratios in turbulent water are important for the growth of filamentous epsilonproteobacteria.