Iron (Fe) oxides exist in a spectrum of structures in the environment, with ferrihydrite widely considered the most bioavailable phase. Yet, ferrihydrite is unstable and rapidly transforms to more crystalline Fe(III) oxides (e.g., goethite, hematite), which are poorly reduced by model dissimilatory Fe(III)-reducing microorganisms. This begs the question, what processes and microbial groups are responsible for reduction of crystalline Fe(III) oxides within sedimentary environments? Further, how do changes in Fe mineralogy shape oxide-hosted microbial populations? To address these questions, we conducted a large-scale cultivation effort using various Fe(III) oxides (ferrihydrite, goethite, hematite) and carbon substrates (glucose, lactate, acetate) along a dilution gradient to enrich for microbial populations capable of reducing Fe oxides spanning a wide range of crystallinities and reduction potentials. While carbon source was the most important variable shaping community composition within Fe(III)-reducing enrichments, both Fe oxide type and sediment dilution also had a substantial influence. For instance, with acetate as the carbon source, only ferrihydrite enrichments displayed a significant amount of Fe(III) reduction and the well-known dissimilatory metal reducerGeobacter sp. was the dominant organism enriched. In contrast, when glucose and lactate were provided, all three Fe oxides were reduced and reduction coincided with the presence of fermentative (e.g., Enterobacter spp.) and sulfate-reducing bacteria (e.g., Desulfovibrio spp.). Thus, changes in Fe oxide structure and resource availability may shift Fe(III)-reducing communities between dominantly metal-respiring to fermenting and/or sulfate-reducing organisms which are capable of reducing more recalcitrant Fe phases. These findings highlight the need for further targeted investigations into the composition and activity of speciation-directed metal-reducing populations within natural environments.
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