Iron-oxidizing bacteria are important actors of the geochemical cycle of iron in modern environments and may have played a key role all over Earth’s history. However, in order to better assess that role on the modern and the past Earth, there is a need for better understanding the mechanisms of bacterial iron oxidation and for defining potential biosignatures to be looked for in the geologic record. In this study, we investigated experimentally and at the nanometre scale the mineralization of iron-oxidizing bacteria with a combination of synchrotron-based scanning transmission X-ray microscopy (STXM), scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) and cryo-transmission electron microscopy (cryo-TEM). We show that the use of cryo-TEM instead of conventional microscopy provides detailed information of the successive iron biomineralization stages in anaerobic nitrate-reducing iron-oxidizing bacteria. These results suggest the existence of preferential Fe-binding and Fe-oxidizing sites on the outer face of the plasma membrane leading to the nucleation and growth of Fe minerals within the periplasm of these cells that eventually become completely encrusted. In contrast, the septa of dividing cells remain nonmineralized. In addition, the use of cryo-TEM offers a detailed view of the exceptional preservation of protein globules and the peptidoglycan within the Fe-mineralized cell walls of these bacteria. These organic molecules and ultrastructural details might be protected from further degradation by entrapment in the mineral matrix down to the nanometre scale. This is discussed in the light of previous studies on the properties of Fe–organic interactions and more generally on the fossilization of mineral–organic assemblies.
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