Authors: Alice Zhou, Yuki Weber, Beverly K. Chiu, Felix J. Elling, Alec B. Cobban, Ann Pearson, William D. Leavitt
Abstract: Microorganisms regulate the composition of their membranes in response to environmental cues. Many Archaea maintain the fluidity and permeability of their membranes by adjusting the number of cyclic moieties within the cores of their glycerol dibiphytanyl glycerol tetraether (GDGT) lipids. Cyclized GDGTs increase membrane packing and stability, which has been shown to help cells survive shifts in temperature and pH. However, the extent of this cyclization also varies with growth phase and electron acceptor or donor limitation. These observations indicate a relationship between energy metabolism and membrane composition. Here we show that the average degree of GDGT cyclization increases with doubling time in continuous cultures of the thermoacidophile Sulfolobus acidocaldarius (DSM 639). This is consistent with the behavior of a mesoneutrophile, Nitrosopumilus maritimus SCM1. Together, these results demonstrate that archaeal GDGT distributions can shift in response to electron donor flux and energy availability, independent of pH or temperature. Paleoenvironmental reconstructions based on GDGTs thus capture the energy available to microbes, which encompasses fluctuations in temperature and pH, as well as electron donor and acceptor availability. The ability of Archaea to adjust membrane composition and packing may be an important strategy that enables survival during episodes of energy stress.