Biodiversity and ecology of acidophilic microorganisms


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Microbial life in extremely low pH (<3) natural and man-made environments may be considerably diverse. Prokaryotic acidophiles (eubacteria and archaea) have been the focus of much of the research activity in this area, primarily because of the importance of these microorganisms in biotechnology (predominantly the commercial biological processing of metal ores) and in environmental pollution (genesis of ‘acid mine drainage’); however, obligately acidophilic eukaryotes (fungi, yeasts, algae and protozoa) are also known, and may form stable microbial communities with prokaryotes, particularly in lower temperature (<35°C) environments. Primary production in acidophilic environments is mediated by chemolitho-autotrophic prokaryotes (iron and sulfur oxidisers), and may be supplemented by phototrophic acidophiles (predominantly eukaryotic microalgae) in illuminated sites. The most thermophilic acidophiles are archaea (Crenarchaeota) whilst in moderately thermal (40–60°C) acidic environments archaea (Euryarchaeota) and bacteria (mostly Gram-positives) may co-exist. Lower temperature (mesophilic) extremely acidic environments tend to be dominated by Gram-negative bacteria, and there is recent evidence that mineral oxidation may be accelerated by acidophilic bacteria at very low (ca. 0°C) environments. Whilst most acidophiles have conventionally been considered to be obligately aerobic, there is increasing evidence that many isolates are facultative anaerobes, and are able to couple the oxidation of organic or inorganic electron donors to the reduction of ferric iron. A variety of interactions have been demonstrated to occur between acidophilic microorganisms, as in other environments; these include competition, predation, mutualism and synergy. Mixed cultures of acidophiles are frequently more robust and efficient (e.g. in oxidising sulfide minerals) than corresponding pure cultures. In view of the continuing expansion of microbial mineral processing (‘biomining’) as a cost-effective and environmentally sensitive method of metal extraction, and the ongoing concern of pollution from abandoned mine sites, acidophilic microbiology will continue to be of considerable research interest well into the new millennium.