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Cyanobacterial life at low O2: community genomics and function reveal metabolic versatility and extremely low diversity in a Great Lakes sinkhole mat


Corresponding author: G. J. Dick. Tel.: 734 763 3228; fax: 734 763 4690; e-mail:


Cyanobacteria are renowned as the mediators of Earth’s oxygenation. However, little is known about the cyanobacterial communities that flourished under the low-O2 conditions that characterized most of their evolutionary history. Microbial mats in the submerged Middle Island Sinkhole of Lake Huron provide opportunities to investigate cyanobacteria under such persistent low-O2 conditions. Here, venting groundwater rich in sulfate and low in O2 supports a unique benthic ecosystem of purple-colored cyanobacterial mats. Beneath the mat is a layer of carbonate that is enriched in calcite and to a lesser extent dolomite. In situ benthic metabolism chambers revealed that the mats are net sinks for O2, suggesting primary production mechanisms other than oxygenic photosynthesis. Indeed, 14C-bicarbonate uptake studies of autotrophic production show variable contributions from oxygenic and anoxygenic photosynthesis and chemosynthesis, presumably because of supply of sulfide. These results suggest the presence of either facultatively anoxygenic cyanobacteria or a mix of oxygenic/anoxygenic types of cyanobacteria. Shotgun metagenomic sequencing revealed a remarkably low-diversity mat community dominated by just one genotype most closely related to the cyanobacterium Phormidium autumnale, for which an essentially complete genome was reconstructed. Also recovered were partial genomes from a second genotype of Phormidium and several Oscillatoria. Despite the taxonomic simplicity, diverse cyanobacterial genes putatively involved in sulfur oxidation were identified, suggesting a diversity of sulfide physiologies. The dominant Phormidium genome reflects versatile metabolism and physiology that is specialized for a communal lifestyle under fluctuating redox conditions and light availability. Overall, this study provides genomic and physiologic insights into low-O2 cyanobacterial mat ecosystems that played crucial geobiological roles over long stretches of Earth history.