Akob DM, Sutton JM, Fierst JL, Haase KB, Baesman S, Luther III GW, Miller LG, Oremland RS. (2018) Acetylenotrophy: a hidden but ubiquitous microbial metabolism? FEMS Microbiology Ecology 94(8):fiy103-fiy103.
Acetylene (IUPAC name: ethyne) is a colorless, gaseous hydrocarbon, composed of two triple bonded carbon atoms attached to hydrogens (C2H2). When microbiologists and biogeochemists think of acetylene, they immediately think of its use as an inhibitory compound of certain microbial processes and a tracer for nitrogen fixation. However, what is less widely known is that anaerobic and aerobic microorganisms can degrade acetylene, using it as a sole carbon and energy source and providing the basis of a microbial food web. Here, we review what is known about acetylene degrading organisms and introduce the term 'acetylenotrophs' to refer to the microorganisms that carry out this metabolic pathway. In addition, we review the known environmental sources of acetylene and postulate the presence of an hidden acetylene cycle. The abundance of bacteria capable of using acetylene and other alkynes as an energy and carbon source suggests that there are energy cycles present in the environment that are driven by acetylene and alkyne production and consumption that are isolated from atmospheric exchange. Acetylenotrophs may have developed to leverage the relatively high concentrations of acetylene in the pre-Cambrian atmosphere, evolving later to survive in specialized niches where acetylene and other alkynes were produced.