The Methanosarcinales, a lineage of cytochrome-containing methanogens, have recently been proposed to participate in direct extracellular electron transfer interactions within syntrophic communities. To shed light on this phenomenon, we applied electrochemical techniques to measure electron uptake from cathodes by Methanosarcina barkeri, which is an important model organism that is genetically tractable and utilizes a wide range of substrates for methanogenesis. Here, we confirm the ability of M. barkeri to perform electron uptake from cathodes and show that this cathodic current is linked to quantitative increases in methane production. The underlying mechanisms we identified include, but are not limited to, a recently proposed association between cathodes and methanogen-derived extracellular enzymes (e.g., hydrogenases) that can facilitate current generation through the formation of reduced and diffusible methanogenic substrates (e.g., hydrogen). However, after minimizing the contributions of such extracellular enzymes and using a mutant lacking hydrogenases, we observe a lower-potential hydrogen-independent pathway that facilitates cathodic activity coupled to methane production in M. barkeri. Our electrochemical measurements of wild-type and mutant strains point to a novel and hydrogenase-free mode of electron uptake with a potential near −484 mV versus standard hydrogen electrode (SHE) (over 100 mV more reduced than the observed hydrogenase midpoint potential under these conditions). These results suggest that M. barkeri can perform multiple modes (hydrogenase-mediated and free extracellular enzyme-independent modes) of electrode interactions on cathodes, including a mechanism pointing to a direct interaction, which has significant applied and ecological implications.
While typically investigated as a microorganism capable of extracellular electron transfer to minerals or anodes, Shewanella oneidensis MR-1 can also facilitate electron flow from a cathode to terminal electron acceptors, such as fumarate or oxygen, thereby providing a model system for a process that has significant environmental and technological implications. This work demonstrates that cathodic electrons enter the electron transport chain of S. oneidensis when oxygen is used as the terminal electron acceptor. The effect of electron transport chain inhibitors suggested that a proton gradient is generated during cathode oxidation, consistent with the higher cellular ATP levels measured in cathode-respiring cells than in controls. Cathode oxidation also correlated with an increase in the cellular redox (NADH/FMNH2) pool determined with a bioluminescence assay, a proton uncoupler, and a mutant of proton-pumping NADH oxidase complex I. This work suggested that the generation of NADH/FMNH2 under cathodic conditions was linked to reverse electron flow mediated by complex I. A decrease in cathodic electron uptake was observed in various mutant strains, including those lacking the extracellular electron transfer components necessary for anodic-current generation. While no cell growth was observed under these conditions, here we show that cathode oxidation is linked to cellular energy acquisition, resulting in a quantifiable reduction in the cellular decay rate. This work highlights a potential mechanism for cell survival and/or persistence on cathodes, which might extend to environments where growth and division are severely limited.