Division of labor and growth during electrical cooperation in multicellular cable bacteria

Nicole M.J. Geerlings*, Cheryl Karman, Stanislav Trashin, Karel S. As, Michiel V.M. Kienhuis, Silvia Hidalgo-Martinez, Diana Vasquez-Cardenas, Henricus T.S. Boschker, Filip J.R. Meysman, More Authors

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)
53 Downloads (Pure)


Multicellularity is a key evolutionary innovation, leading to coordinated activity and resource sharing among cells, which generally occurs via the physical exchange of chemical compounds. However, filamentous cable bacteria display a unique metabolism in which redox transformations in distant cells are coupled via long-distance electron transport rather than an exchange of chemicals. This challenges our understanding of organismal functioning, as the link among electron transfer, metabolism, energy conservation, and filament growth in cable bacteria remains enigmatic. Here, we show that cells within individual filaments of cable bacteria display a remarkable dichotomy in biosynthesis that coincides with redox zonation. Nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry combined with 13C (bicarbonate and propionate) and 15N-ammonia isotope labeling reveals that cells performing sulfide oxidation in deeper anoxic horizons have a high assimilation rate, whereas cells performing oxygen reduction in the oxic zone show very little or no label uptake. Accordingly, oxygen reduction appears to merely function as a mechanism to quickly dispense of electrons with little to no energy conservation, while biosynthesis and growth are restricted to sulfide-respiring cells. Still, cells can immediately switch roles when redox conditions change, and show no differentiation, which suggests that the “community service” performed by the cells in the oxic zone is only temporary. Overall, our data reveal a division of labor and electrical cooperation among cells that has not been seen previously in multicellular organisms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5478-5485
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Cable bacteria
  • Metabolism
  • Multicellularity
  • NanoSIMS
  • Stable isotope probing


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