Contingent interactions among biofilm-forming bacteria determine preservation or decay in the first steps toward fossilization of marine embryos


Authors for correspondence: (e-mail: (E.C.R.); (R.A.R.))


Fossils of soft tissues provide important records of early animals and embryos, and there is substantial evidence for a role for microbes in soft tissue fossilization. We are investigating the initial events in interactions of bacteria with freshly dead tissue, using marine embryos as a model system. We previously found that microbial invasion can stabilize embryo tissue that would otherwise disintegrate in hours or days by generating a bacterial pseudomorph, a three-dimensional biofilm that both replaces the tissue and replicates its morphology. In this study, we sampled seawater at different times and places near Sydney, Australia, and determined the range and frequency of different taphonomic outcomes. Although destruction was most common, bacteria in 35% of seawater samples yielded morphology-preserving biofilms. We could replicate the taphonomic pathways seen with seawater bacterial communities using single cultured strains of marine gammaproteobacteria. Each given species reproducibly generated a consistent taphonomic outcome and we identified species that yielded each of the distinct pathways produced by seawater bacterial communities. Once formed, bacterial pseudomorphs are stable for over a year and resist attack by other bacteria and destruction by proteases and other lytic enzymes. Competition studies showed that the initial action of a pseudomorphing strain can be blocked by a strain that destroys tissues. Thus embryo preservation in nature may depend on contingent interactions among bacterial species that determine if pseudomorphing occurs. We used Artemia nauplius larvae to show that bacterial biofilm replacement of tissue is not restricted to embryos, but is relevant for preservation of small multicellular organisms. We present a model for bacterial self-assembly of large-scale three-dimensional tissue pseudomorphs, based on small-scale interactions among individual bacterial cells to form local biofilms at structural boundaries within the tissue. Local biofilms then conjoin to generate the pseudomorph.