Extreme acidic environments are characterized by their high metal content and lack of nutrients (oligotrophy). Macroscopic biofilms and filaments usually grow on the water-air interface or under the stream attached to solid substrates (streamers). In the Río Tinto (Spain), brown filaments develop under the water stream where the Gram-negative iron-oxidizing bacteria Leptospirillum spp. ( L. ferrooxidans and L. ferriphilum) and Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans are abundant. These microorganisms play a critical role in bioleaching processes for industrial (biominery) and environmental applications (acid mine drainage, bioremediation). The aim of this study was to investigate the physiological differences between the free living (planktonic) and the sessile (biofilm associated) lifestyles of Leptospirillum spp. as part of its natural extremely acidophilic community.
Total RNA extracted from environmental samples was used to determine the composition of the metabolically active members of the microbial community and then to compare the biofilm and planktonic environmental transcriptomes by hybridizing to a genomic microarray of L. ferrooxidans. Genes up-regulated in the filamentous biofilm are involved in cellular functions related to biofilm formation and maintenance, such as: motility and quorum sensing ( mqsR, cheAY, fliA, motAB), synthesis of cell wall structures ( lnt, murA, murB), specific proteases ( clpX/clpP), stress response chaperons ( clpB, clpC, grpE-dnaKJ, groESL), etc. Additionally, genes involved in mixed acid fermentation ( poxB, ackA) were up-regulated in the biofilm. This result, together with the presence of small organic acids like acetate and formate (1.36 mM and 0.06 mM respectively) in the acidic (pH 1.8) water stream, suggests that either L. ferrooxidans or other member of the microbial community are producing acetate in the acidophilic biofilm under microaerophilic conditions.
Our results indicate that the acidophilic filaments are dynamic structures in which different mechanisms for biofilm formation/dispersion are operating. Specific transcriptomic fingerprints can be inferred for both planktonic and sessile cells, having the former a more active TCA cycle, while the mixed acid fermentation process dominate in the latter. The excretion of acetate may play a relevant ecological role as a source of electron donor for heterotrophic Fe 3+ reducers like some Alphaproteobacteria, Acidobacterium spp. and Sulfobacillus spp., also present in the biofilm. Additionally, acetate may have a negative effect on bioleaching by inhibiting the growth of chemolithotrophic bacteria.