Biology of Green Sulfur Bacteria


Green sulfur bacteria, the Chlorobiaceae, have gained much attention because of unique structures of the photosynthetic apparatus and the presence of chlorosomes as very powerful light antenna that can capture minute amounts of light. This has important ecological consequences, because the efficient light‐harvesting determines the ecological niche of these bacteria at the lowermost part of stratified environments where the least of light is available. The oxidation of sulfide as their outmost important photosynthetic electron donor involves the deposition of elemental sulfur globules outside the cells and separates the process of sulfide oxidation to sulfate into two parts. This is the basis for stable syntrophic associations between green sulfur bacteria and sulfur‐ and sulfate‐reducing bacteria in which the sulfur compounds are recycled. The green sulfur bacteria are distantly related to other bacteria and systematically members of the Chlorobiaceae family with Chlorobium, Chlorobaculum, Prosthecochloris and Chloroherpeton as representative genera.

  • Green sulfur bacteria depend on light for life due to their obligate phototrophic metabolism.
  • Green sulfur bacteria are most efficient in photosynthesis due to the presence of light‐harvesting organelles, the chlorosomes, which are filled with bacteriochlorophyll molecules.
  • Green sulfur bacteria are offsprings of one of the most ancient bacterial lineages performing biosynthesis of bacteriochlorophyll and photosynthesis.
  • Green sulfur bacteria inhabit the lowermost light‐receiving part of the chemocline in the stratified environment due to their high sensitivity to oxygen, high tolerance to the toxic sulfide and highly efficient light capture.
  • Green sulfur bacteria are important drivers of oxidation of reduced sulfur compounds in the stratified, sulfide‐containing environment receiving low irradiation.

Keywords: green sulfur bacteria; Chlorobiaceae; bacterial photosynthesis; chlorosomes; sulfur oxidation; phototrophic metabolism; anoxygenic photosynthesis

Figure 1. Electron photomicrograph of a thin‐section of Chloroherpeton thalassium showing gas vesicles in the cell interior and chlorosomes alongside the inner part of the cytoplasmic membrane. G, gas vesicles; C, chlorosomes; CW, cell wall; CM, cytoplasmic membrane. Bar = 0.5 μm. Reproduced with permission from J. Gibson et al., Arch. Microbiol. 138: 96–101 by Springer.
Figure 2. Schematic presentation showing the central role of the Fenna–Matthews–Olson protein (fmo protein) in the energy transfer from the light‐harvesting chlorosomes via the base plate proteins to the membrane‐bound photosynthetic reaction centre. Courtesy of B. Alexander.
Figure 3. Microscopic photograph of a Chlorobium limicola culture with sulfur globules accumulating outside the cells. Courtesy of N. Pfennig.
Figure 4. Photograph of a deep agar tube culture with a central colony of Desulfuromonas acetoxidans (coloured due to the high content of cytochromes) and peripheral colonies of the green sulfur bacterium Prosthecochloris aestuarii increasing in size close to the central colony due to the exchange of sulfur compounds. Courtesy of N. Pfennig.
Figure 5. Phylogenetic tree of recognised species of the green sulfur bacteria (Chlorobi) in comparison to representatives of Chloroflexi as well as Heliobacterium modesticaldum and Chloracidobacterium thermophilum based on 16S rRNA gene sequences. Sequences were aligned using Clustal X2 and a neighbour‐joining tree was constructed with gaps excluded and corrected for multiple substitutions.


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Further Reading

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Sander J, Engels‐Schwarzlose S and Dahl C (2006) Importance of the DsrMKJOP complex for sulfur oxidation in Allochromatium vinosum and phylogenetic analysis of related complexes in other prokaryotes. Archives of Microbiology 186: 357–366.

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Imhoff, Johannes F(Aug 2020) Biology of Green Sulfur Bacteria. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0029145]