Microbial transformation of elements: the case of arsenic and selenium


  • J. Stolz Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA
  • P. Basu Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA
  • R. Oremland U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA, USA


selenate reductase, arsenate reductase, molybdenum enzymes, microbial evolution


Microbial activity is responsible for the transformation of at least one third of the elements in the periodic table. These transformations are the result of assimilatory, dissimilatory, or detoxification processes and form the cornerstones of many biogeochemical cycles. Arsenic and selenium are two elements whose roles in microbial ecology have only recently been recognized. Known as “essential toxins”, they are required in trace amounts for growth and metabolism but are toxic at elevated concentrations. Arsenic is used as an osmolite in some marine organisms while selenium is required as selenocysteine (i.e. the twenty-first amino acid) or as a ligand to metal in some enzymes (e.g. FeNiSe hydrogenase). Arsenic resistance involves a small-molecularweight arsenate reductase (ArsC). The use of arsenic and selenium oxyanions for energy is widespread in prokaryotes with representative organisms from the Crenarchaeota, thermophilic bacteria, low and high G+C gram-positive bacteria, and Proteobacteria. Recent studies have shown that both elements are actively cycled and play a significant role in carbon mineralization in certain environments. The occurrence of multiple mechanisms involving different enzymes for arsenic and selenium transformation indicates several different evolutionary pathways (e.g. convergence and lateral gene transfer) and underscores the environmental significance and selective impact in microbial evolution of these two elements.






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