The geochemical dynamics and composition of microbial communities within a low-temperature (∼8.5°C), long-abandoned (> 90 years) underground pyrite mine (Cae Coch, located in north Wales) were investigated. Surface water percolating through fractures in the residual pyrite ore body that forms the roof of the mine becomes extremely acidic and iron-enriched due to microbially accelerated oxidative dissolution of the sulfide mineral. Water droplets on the mine roof were found to host a very limited diversity of exclusively autotrophic microorganisms, dominated by the recently described psychrotolerant iron/sulfur-oxidizing acidophile Acidithiobacillus ferrivorans, and smaller numbers of iron-oxidizing Leptospirillum ferrooxidans. In contrast, flowing water within the mine chamber was colonized with vast macroscopic microbial growths, in the form of acid streamers and microbial stalactites, where the dominant microorganisms were Betaproteobacteria (autotrophic iron oxidizers such as ‘Ferrovum myxofaciens’ and a bacterium related to Gallionella ferruginea). An isolated pool within the mine showed some similarity (although greater biodiversity) to the roof droplets, and was the only site where archaea were relatively abundant. Bacteria not previously associated with extremely acidic, metal-rich environments (a Sphingomonas sp. and Ralstonia pickettii) were found within the abandoned mine. Data supported the hypothesis that the Cae Coch ecosystem is underpinned by acidophilic, mostly autotrophic, bacteria that use ferrous iron present in the pyrite ore body as their source of energy, with a limited role for sulfur-based autotrophy. Results of this study highlight the importance of novel bacterial species (At. ferrivorans and acidophilic iron-oxidizing Betaproteobacteria) in mediating mineral oxidation and redox transformations of iron in acidic, low-temperature environments.
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