Biochemistry and molecular biology of lithotrophic sulfur oxidation by taxonomically and ecologically diverse bacteria and archaea


  • Wriddhiman Ghosh,

    1. Department of Microbiology, University of Burdwan, West Bengal, India
    2. Department of Microbiology, Bose Institute, Kolkata, India
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  • Bomba Dam

    1. Department of Microbiology, Bose Institute, Kolkata, India
    2. Microbiology Laboratory, Department of Botany, Institute of Sciences, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal, India
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  • Editor: Michael Galperin

Correspondence: Wriddhiman Ghosh, Department of Microbiology, Bose Institute, P-1/12, C. I. T. Scheme VII- M, Kolkata 700 054, India. Tel.: +91 33 23 55 94 16; fax: +91 33 23 55 38 86; e-mail:


Lithotrophic sulfur oxidation is an ancient metabolic process. Ecologically and taxonomically diverged prokaryotes have differential abilities to utilize different reduced sulfur compounds as lithotrophic substrates. Different phototrophic or chemotrophic species use different enzymes, pathways and mechanisms of electron transport and energy conservation for the oxidation of any given substrate. While the mechanisms of sulfur oxidation in obligately chemolithotrophic bacteria, predominantly belonging to Beta- (e.g. Thiobacillus) and Gammaproteobacteria (e.g. Thiomicrospira), are not well established, the Sox system is the central pathway in the facultative bacteria from Alphaproteobacteria (e.g. Paracoccus). Interestingly, photolithotrophs such as Rhodovulum belonging to Alphaproteobacteria also use the Sox system, whereas those from Chromatiaceae and Chlorobi use a truncated Sox complex alongside reverse-acting sulfate-reducing systems. Certain chemotrophic magnetotactic Alphaproteobacteria allegedly utilize such a combined mechanism. Sulfur-chemolithotrophic metabolism in Archaea, largely restricted to Sulfolobales, is distinct from those in Bacteria. Phylogenetic and biomolecular fossil data suggest that the ubiquity of sox genes could be due to horizontal transfer, and coupled sulfate reduction/sulfide oxidation pathways, originating in planktonic ancestors of Chromatiaceae or Chlorobi, could be ancestral to all sulfur-lithotrophic processes. However, the possibility that chemolithotrophy, originating in deep sea, is the actual ancestral form of sulfur oxidation cannot be ruled out.