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Saccharibacteria harness light energy using type-1 rhodopsins that may rely on retinal sourced from microbial hosts.


Microbial rhodopsins are a family of photoreceptive membrane proteins with a wide distribution across the Tree of Life. Within the candidate phyla radiation (CPR), a diverse group of putatively episymbiotic bacteria, the genetic potential to produce rhodopsins appears to be confined to a small clade of organisms from sunlit environments. Here, we characterize the metabolic context and biophysical features of Saccharibacteria Type-1 rhodopsin sequences derived from metagenomic surveys and show that these proteins function as outward proton pumps. This provides one of the only known mechanisms by which CPR can generate a proton gradient for ATP synthesis. These Saccharibacteria do not encode the genetic machinery to produce all-trans-retinal, the chromophore essential for rhodopsin function, but their rhodopsins are able to rapidly uptake this cofactor when provided in experimental assays. We found consistent evidence for the capacity to produce retinal from β-carotene in microorganisms co-occurring with Saccharibacteria, and this genetic potential was dominated by members of the Actinobacteria, which are known hosts of Saccharibacteria in other habitats. If Actinobacteria serve as hosts for Saccharibacteria in freshwater environments, exchange of retinal for use by rhodopsin may be a feature of their associations.

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