Syntrophy in anaerobic global carbon cycles

Michael J. McInerney, Jessica R. Sieber, Robert P. Gunsalus

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

306 Scopus citations


Syntrophy is an essential intermediary step in the anaerobic conversion of organic matter to methane where metabolically distinct microorganisms are tightly linked by the need to maintain the exchanged metabolites at very low concentrations. Anaerobic syntrophy is thermodynamically constrained, and is probably a prime reason why it is difficult to culture microbes as these approaches disrupt consortia. Reconstruction of artificial syntrophic consortia has allowed uncultured syntrophic metabolizers and methanogens to be optimally grown and studied biochemically. The pathways for syntrophic acetate, propionate and longer chain fatty acid metabolism are mostly understood, but key steps involved in benzoate breakdown and cyclohexane carboxylate formation are unclear. Syntrophic metabolism requires reverse electron transfer, close physical contact, and metabolic synchronization of the syntrophic partners. Genomic analyses reveal that multiple mechanisms exist for reverse electron transfer. Surprisingly, the flagellum functions were implicated in ensuring close physical proximity and synchronization of the syntrophic partners.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)623-632
Number of pages10
JournalCurrent opinion in biotechnology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2009
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported in part by contracts DE-FG02-08ER64689 and DE-FG02-96ER20214 from the Department of Energy, awards EF-0333294 and MCB-0543519 from the National Science Foundation, and the UCLA-DOE Institute for Genomics and Proteomics.


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