Active sulfur cycling by diverse mesophilic and thermophilic microorganisms in terrestrial mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan


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Terrestrial mud volcanoes (TMVs) represent geochemically diverse habitats with varying sulfur sources and yet sulfur cycling in these environments remains largely unexplored. Here we characterized the sulfur-metabolizing microorganisms and activity in four TMVs in Azerbaijan. A combination of geochemical analyses, biological rate measurements and molecular diversity surveys (targeting metabolic genes aprA and dsrA and SSU ribosomal RNA) supported the presence of active sulfur-oxidizing and sulfate-reducing guilds in all four TMVs across a range of physiochemical conditions, with diversity of these guilds being unique to each TMV. The TMVs varied in potential sulfate reduction rates (SRR) by up to four orders of magnitude with highest SRR observed in sediments where in situ sulfate concentrations were highest. Maximum temperatures at which SRR were measured was 60°C in two TMVs. Corresponding with these trends in SRR, members of the potentially thermophilic, spore-forming, Desulfotomaculum were detected in these TMVs by targeted 16S rRNA analysis. Additional sulfate-reducing bacterial lineages included members of the Desulfobacteraceae and Desulfobulbaceae detected by aprA and dsrA analyses and likely contributing to the mesophilic SRR measured. Phylotypes affiliated with sulfide-oxidizing Gamma- and Betaproteobacteria were abundant in aprA libraries from low sulfate TMVs, while the highest sulfate TMV harboured 16S rRNA phylotypes associated with sulfur-oxidizing Epsilonproteobacteria. Altogether, the biogeochemical and microbiological data indicate these unique terrestrial habitats support diverse active sulfur-cycling microorganisms reflecting the in situ geochemical environment.