Bacteria in the Ocean? That Eat Iron??

Lauren Rodgers, Rutgers University

Version 2The problem: Have you ever asked yourself, what is iron? It is an element? A rock? Some weird orange-ish substance? Is it the tool that you use to get the wrinkles out of clothes? And what does iron even do? Does it just sit there? Does anything eat it? Can we make things out of it? Iron is one of the most abundant elements on earth, yet not many people know much about the important role it plays in our lives.

Iron is more than just an element, or something found within a rock. It’s a nutrient, something necessary for the growth and metabolism of almost every living organism on Earth (Hedrich & Johnson, 2011). In the ocean, iron is found in two different forms, ferrous iron or Fe(II), which is soluble in water, and ferric iron or Fe(III), which is insoluble in water (Hedrich & Johnson, 2011). Because ferrous iron is soluble it is the form of iron that can be used by most organisms in the water (Hedrich & Johnson, 2011). This ferrous iron, however, is limited in the ocean despite its abundance in the Earth’s crust. In fact, Fe(II) is present only in incredibly small concentrations, making it a major limiting factor of growth for all of the plants and algae in the ocean. This is important because these plants and algae serve as the base of many food chains, so if there is a limitation on the growth of these organisms, it affects every other organism throughout the food chain. Though iron is an extremely important nutrient for many living organisms, it is still not well understood. One of the least understood aspects is how iron specifically cycles through different marine environments. Does it ever change form? Does anything add iron to the ocean? Does anything take iron out of the ocean? These questions bring us to Zetaproteobacteria.

Zetaproteobacteria is a recently discovered class of iron-oxidizing microbes. This just means that the bacteria eat iron in the form of Fe(II) and produce Fe(III) as a waste product (Emerson et al., 2007; Chiu et al., 2017). In fact, these waste products can take on the form of hollow tubes, also called tubular sheaths, or twisted stalks that you can see under the microscope!


Zetaproteobacteria were initially described in 2007 near hydrothermal vents, utilizing the large concentrations of Fe(II) that were present in the fluid that spewed from the vents (Emerson et al., 2007).

Iron Mat

Iron mat composed of Zetaproteobacteria on a lava rock near the submarine Loihi volcano. (A. Malahoff, Hawaii, Loihi Volcano, July 1988)

How do Zetaproteobacteria relate to the cycling of iron? 

Zetaproteobacteria, with their role in eating iron and transforming it from its soluble Fe(II) state into its insoluble Fe(III) form may have an important role in the cycling of iron through the environment, functioning as an important source of iron removal.

Since their discovery, Zetaproteobacteria have also been observed in many other habitats, including coastal estuarine habitats with lower levels of iron, similar to that of Charleston, SC. (Laufer et al., 2017; Chiu et al., 2017). Our study will try to identify if these Zetaproteobacteria are present in the muddy soils around Charleston, as well as measure the levels of Fe(II) and Fe(III) in the rivers where these bacteria may be found.


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Hopefully, through the study of the distribution of Zetaproteobacteria across the globe, including the chemical characteristics of the different environments that they inhabit, we may get a clearer picture of how iron cycles in aquatic environments and the role that these Zetaproteobacteria play.

I would like to thank my mentor, Dr. Heather Fullerton, for guiding me through this research. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation for funding this research as well as the College of Charleston and Grice Marine Lab for their support.


Chiu, B. K., Kato, S., McAllister, S. M., Field, E. K., & Chan, C. S. (2017). Novel pelagic iron-oxidizing Zetaproteobacteria from the Chesapeake Bay oxic-anoxic transition zone. Frontiers in Microbiology, 8(JUL), 1–16.

Emerson, D., Rentz, J. A., Lilburn, T. G., Davis, R. E., Aldrich, H., Chan, C. S., & Moyer, C. L. (2007). A novel lineage of proteobacteria involved in formation of marine Fe-oxidizing microbial mat communities. PLoS ONE, 2(8), e667.

Hedrich, S., Schlömann, M., & Johnson, D. B. (2011). The iron-oxidizing proteobacteria. Microbiology,157(6), 1551–1564.

Laufer, K., Nordhoff, M., Halama, M., Martinez, R. ., Obst, M., Nowak, M., … Kappler, A. (2017). Microaerophilic Fe(II)-oxidizing Zetaproteobacteriaisolated from low-Fe marine coastal sediments – physiology and characterization of their twisted stalks. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 83(February), AEM.03118-16.

Mori, J. F., Scott, J. J., Hager, K. W., Moyer, C. L., Küsel, K., & Emerson, D. (2017). Physiological and ecological implications of an iron- or hydrogen-oxidizing member of the Zetaproteobacteria, Ghiorsea bivora, gen. nov., sp. Nov. ISME Journal, 11(11), 2624–2636.


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