Microbial communities and geochemical dynamics in an extremely acidic, metal-rich stream at an abandoned sulfide mine (Huelva, Spain) underpinned by two functional primary production systems


E-mail d.b.johnson@bangor.ac.uk; Tel. +44 (0) 1248 382358; Fax +44 (0) 1248 370731.


An extremely acidic (pH 2.5–2.75) metal-rich stream draining an abandoned mine in the Iberian Pyrite Belt, Spain, was ramified with stratified macroscopic gelatinous microbial growths (‘acid streamers’ or ‘mats’). Microbial communities of streamer/mat growths sampled at different depths, as well as those present in the stream water itself, were analysed using a combined biomolecular and cultivation-based approach. The oxygen-depleted mine water was dominated by the chemolithotrophic facultative anaerobe Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans, while the streamer communities were found to be highly heterogeneous and very different to superficially similar growths reported in other extremely acidic environments. Microalgae accounted for a significant proportion of surface streamer biomass, while subsurface layers were dominated by heterotrophic acidophilic bacteria (Acidobacteriacae and Acidiphilium spp.). Sulfidogenic bacteria were isolated from the lowest depth streamer growths, where there was also evidence for selective biomineralization of copper sulfide. Archaeal clones (exclusively Euryarchaeota) were recovered from streamer samples, as well as the mine stream water. Both sunlight and reduced inorganic chemicals (predominantly ferrous iron) served as energy sources for primary producers in this ecosystem, promoting complex microbial interactions involving transfer of electron donors and acceptors and of organic carbon, between microorganisms in the stream water and the gelatinous streamer growths. Microbial transformations were shown to impact the biogeochemical cycling of iron and sulfur in the acidic stream, severely restricting the net oxidation of ferrous iron even when the initially anoxic waters were oxygenated by indigenous acidophilic algae. A model accounting for the biogeochemistry of iron and sulfur in the mine waters is described, and the significance of the acidophilic communities in regulating the geochemistry of acidic, metal-rich waters is described.