Anaerobic bacterial metabolism of hydrocarbons


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The capacity of some bacteria to metabolize hydrocarbons in the absence of molecular oxygen was first recognized only about ten years ago. Since then, the number of hydrocarbon compounds shown to be catabolized anaerobically by pure bacterial cultures has been steadily increasing. This review summarises the current knowledge of the bacterial isolates capable of anaerobic mineralization of hydrocarbons, and of the biochemistry and molecular biology of enzymes involved in the catabolic pathways of some of these substrates. Several alkylbenzenes, alkanes or alkenes are anaerobically utilized as substrates by several species of denitrifying, ferric iron-reducing and sulfate-reducing bacteria. Another group of anaerobic hydrocarbon degrading bacteria are ‘proton reducers’ that depend on syntrophic associations with methanogens. For two alkylbenzenes, toluene and ethylbenzene, details of the biochemical pathways involved in anaerobic mineralization are known. These hydrocarbons are initially attacked by novel, formerly unknown reactions and oxidized further to benzoyl-CoA, a common intermediate in anaerobic catabolism of many aromatic compounds. Toluene degradation is initiated by an unusual addition reaction of the toluene methyl group to the double bond of fumarate to form benzylsuccinate. The enzyme catalyzing this first step has been characterized at both the biochemical and molecular level. It is a unique type of glycyl-radical enzyme, an enzyme family previously represented only by pyruvate-formate lyases and anaerobic ribonucleotide reductases. Based on the nature of benzylsuccinate synthase as a radical enzyme, a hypothetical reaction mechanism for the addition of toluene to fumarate is proposed. The further catabolism of benzylsuccinate to benzoyl-CoA and succinyl-CoA appears to occur via reactions of a modified β-oxidation pathway. Ethylbenzene is first oxidized at the methylene carbon to 1-phenylethanol and subsequently to acetophenone, which is then carboxylated to 3-oxophenylpropionate and converted to benzoyl-CoA and acetyl-CoA. Anaerobic mineralization of alkanes involves an oxygen-independent oxidation to fatty acids, followed by β-oxidation. In one strain of an alkane-mineralizing sulfate-reducing bacterium, the activation appears to proceed via a chain-elongation, possibly by addition of a C1-group at the terminal methyl group of the alkane. Finally, aspects concerned with the regulation and ecological significance of anaerobic hydrocarbon catabolic pathways are discussed.