Fermentation in cyanobacteria

Stal, L.J.; Moezelaar, R.


Although cyanobacteria are oxygenic phototrophic organisms, they often thrive in environments that become periodically anoxic. This is particularly the case in the dark when photosynthetic oxygen evolution does not take place. Whereas cyanobacteria generally utilize endogenous storage carbohydrate by aerobic respiration, they must use alternative ways for energy generation under dark anoxic conditions. This aspect of metabolism of cyanobacteria has received little attention but nevertheless in recent years a steadily increasing number of publications have reported the capacity of fermentation in cyanobacteria. This review summarizes these reports and gives a critical consideration of the energetics of dark fermentation in a number of species. There are a variety of different fermentation pathways in cyanobacteria. These include homo- and heterolactic acid fermentation, mixed acid fermentation and homoacetate fermentation. Products of fermentation include CO2, H2, formate, acetate, lactate and ethanol. In all species investigated, fermentation is constitutive. All enzymes of the fermentative pathways are present in photoautotrophically grown cells. Many cyanobacteria are also capable of using elemental sulfur as electron acceptor. In most cases it seems unlikely that sulfur respiration occurs. The main advantage of sulfur reduction seems to be the higher yield of ATP which can be achieved during fermentation. Besides oxygen and elemental sulfur no other electron acceptors for chemotrophic metabolism are known so far in cyanobacteria. Calculations show that the yield of ATP during fermentation, although it is low relative to aerobic respiration, exceeds the amount that is likely to be required for maintenance, which appears to be very low in these cyanobacteria. The possibility of a limited amount of biosynthesis during anaerobic dark metabolism is discussed.