Open Access Research article

Microbial oxidation of arsenite in a subarctic environment: diversity of arsenite oxidase genes and identification of a psychrotolerant arsenite oxidiser

Thomas H Osborne1, Heather E Jamieson2, Karen A Hudson-Edwards3, D Kirk Nordstrom4, Stephen R Walker2, Seamus A Ward5 and Joanne M Santini1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, UCL, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

2 Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6, Canada

3 Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX, UK

4 US Geological Survey Boulder, Colorado 80303, USA

5 Research Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL, Darwin Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK

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BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:205  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-205

Published: 30 July 2010



Arsenic is toxic to most living cells. The two soluble inorganic forms of arsenic are arsenite (+3) and arsenate (+5), with arsenite the more toxic. Prokaryotic metabolism of arsenic has been reported in both thermal and moderate environments and has been shown to be involved in the redox cycling of arsenic. No arsenic metabolism (either dissimilatory arsenate reduction or arsenite oxidation) has ever been reported in cold environments (i.e. < 10°C).


Our study site is located 512 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories, Canada in an inactive gold mine which contains mine waste water in excess of 50 mM arsenic. Several thousand tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust are stored in underground chambers and microbial biofilms grow on the chamber walls below seepage points rich in arsenite-containing solutions. We compared the arsenite oxidisers in two subsamples (which differed in arsenite concentration) collected from one biofilm. 'Species' (sequence) richness did not differ between subsamples, but the relative importance of the three identifiable clades did. An arsenite-oxidising bacterium (designated GM1) was isolated, and was shown to oxidise arsenite in the early exponential growth phase and to grow at a broad range of temperatures (4-25°C). Its arsenite oxidase was constitutively expressed and functioned over a broad temperature range.


The diversity of arsenite oxidisers does not significantly differ from two subsamples of a microbial biofilm that vary in arsenite concentrations. GM1 is the first psychrotolerant arsenite oxidiser to be isolated with the ability to grow below 10°C. This ability to grow at low temperatures could be harnessed for arsenic bioremediation in moderate to cold climates.