Nitrogen fixation in distinct microbial niches within a chemoautotrophy-driven cave ecosystem

Mahesh S. Desai*, Karoline Assig, Sharmishtha Dattagupta

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Microbial sulfur and carbon cycles in ecosystems driven by chemoautotrophy - present at deep-sea hydrothermal vents, cold seeps and sulfidic caves - have been studied to some extent, yet little is known about nitrogen fixation in these systems. Using a comprehensive approach comprising of 15 N 2 isotope labeling, acetylene reduction assay and nitrogenase gene expression analyses, we investigated nitrogen fixation in the sulfide-rich, chemoautotrophy-based Frasassi cave ecosystem (Italy). Nitrogen fixation was examined in three different microbial niches within the cave waters: (1) symbiotic bacterial community of Niphargus amphipods, (2) Beggiatoa-dominated biofilms, which occur at the sulfide-oxygen interface, and (3) sulfidic sediment. We found evidence for nitrogen fixation in all the three niches, and the nitrogenase gene (homologs of nifH) expression data clearly show niche differentiation of diazotrophic Proteobacteria within the water streams. the nifH transcript originated from the symbiotic community of Niphargus amphipods might belong to the thiothrix ectosymbionts. Two abundantly expressed nifH genes in the Beggiatoa-dominated biofilms are closely related to those from Beggiatoa- and Desulfovibrio-related bacteria. these two diazotrophs were consistently found in Beggiatoa-dominated biofilms collected at various time points, thus illustrating species-specific associations of the diazotrophs in biofilm formation, and micron-scale niche partitioning of sulfur-oxidizing and sulfate-reducing bacteria driven by steep redox gradients within the biofilm. Finally, putative heterotrophs (Geobacter, Azoarcus and Desulfovibrio related) were the active diazotrophs in the sulfidic sediment. Our study is the first to shed light on nitrogen fixation in permanently dark caves and suggests that diazotrophy may be widespread in chemosynthetic communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2411-2423
Number of pages13
JournalISME Journal
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Beggiatoa biofilms
  • Niphargus
  • chemoautotrophy
  • nitrogen fixation
  • sulfidic sediment
  • thiothrix ectosymbionts


Dive into the research topics of 'Nitrogen fixation in distinct microbial niches within a chemoautotrophy-driven cave ecosystem'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this