Phylogenetic structure of unusual aquatic microbial formations in Nullarbor caves, Australia
The nature of unusual aquatic microbial formations in flooded passages of cave systems in the Nullarbor region of Australia was investigated using electron microscopy and DNA analysis. The caves are located in a semiarid region but intersect the watertable at depths of approximately 100 m below the surface. Throughout submerged portions of the caves divers have noted the presence of unusual microbial formations. These ‘microbial mantles’ comprise sheets or tongues of mucoid material in which small crystals are embedded. Examination of the biomass revealed it to be primarily composed of densely packed, unbranched filaments, together with spherical‐, rod‐ and spiral‐shaped cells, and microcrystals of calcite in a mucoid matrix. Molecular phylogenetic analysis of the community structure revealed ∼12% of clones showed high similarity to autotrophic nitrite‐oxidizing bacteria (Nitrospira moscoviensis). The remainder of the clones exhibited a high proportion of phylogenetically novel sequence types. Chemical analysis of water samples revealed high levels of sulphate and nitrate together with significant nitrite. The community structure, the presence of nitrite in the water, and the apparent absence of aquatic macrofauna, suggest these microbial structures may represent biochemically novel, chemoautotrophic communities dependent on nitrite oxidation.