Hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria are abundant in desert soils and strongly stimulated by hydration

Karen Jordaan, Rachael Lappan, Xiyang Dong, Ian J. Aitkenhead, Sean K. Bay, Eleonora Chiri, Nimrod Wieler, Laura K. Meredith, Don A. Cowan, Steven L. Chown, Chris Greening

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How the diverse bacterial communities inhabiting desert soils maintain energy and carbon needs is much debated. Traditionally, most bacteria are thought to persist by using organic carbon synthesized by photoautotrophs following transient hydration events. Recent studies focused on Antarctic desert soils have revealed, however, that some bacteria use atmospheric trace gases, such as hydrogen (H2), to conserve energy and fix carbon independently of photosynthesis. In this study, we investigated whether atmospheric H2 oxidation occurs in four nonpolar desert soils and compared this process to photosynthesis. To do so, we first profiled the distribution, expression, and activities of hydrogenases and photosystems in surface soils collected from the South Australian desert over a simulated hydration-desiccation cycle. Hydrogenase-encoding sequences were abundant in the metagenomes and metatranscriptomes and were detected in actinobacterial, acidobacterial, and cyanobacterial metagenome-assembled genomes. Native dry soil samples mediated H2 oxidation, but rates increased 950-fold following wetting. Oxygenic and anoxygenic phototrophs were also detected in the community but at lower abundances. Hydration significantly stimulated rates of photosynthetic carbon fixation and, to a lesser extent, dark carbon assimilation. Hydrogenase genes were also widespread in samples from three other climatically distinct deserts, the Namib, Gobi, and Mojave, and atmospheric H2 oxidation was also greatly stimulated by hydration at these sites. Together, these findings highlight that H2 is an important, hitherto-overlooked energy source supporting bacterial communities in desert soils. Contrary to our previous hypotheses, however, H2 oxidation occurs simultaneously rather than alternately with photosynthesis in such ecosystems and may even be mediated by some photoautotrophs.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01131
Number of pages19
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 17 Nov 2020

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