Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 873-890
Formate, a simple organic acid known to support chemotrophic hyperthermophiles, is found in hot springs of varying temperature and pH. However, it is not yet known how metabolic strategies that use formate could contribute to primary productivity in hydrothermal ecosystems. In an effort to provide a quantitative framework for assessing the role of formate metabolism, concentration data for dissolved formate and many other solutes in samples from Yellowstone hot springs were used, together with data for coexisting gas compositions, to evaluate the overall Gibbs energy for many reactions involving formate oxidation or reduction.
The result is the first rigorous thermodynamic assessment of reactions involving formate oxidation to bicarbonate and reduction to methane coupled with various forms of iron, nitrogen, sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen for hydrothermal ecosystems.
We conclude that there are a limited number of reactions that can yield energy through formate reduction, in contrast to numerous formate oxidation reactions that can yield abundant energy for chemosynthetic microorganisms. Because the energy yields are so high, these results challenge the notion that hydrogen is the primary energy source of chemosynthetic microbes in hydrothermal ecosystems.