The diversity and function of aerobic heterotrophic bacteria (AHB) in cyanobacterial mats have been largely overlooked. We used culture-dependent and molecular techniques to explore the species diversity, degradative capacities and functional guilds of AHB in the photic layer (2 mm) of an oil-polluted microbial mat from Saudi Arabia. Enrichment isolation was carried out at different salinities (5% and 12%) and temperatures (28 and 45 °C) and on various substrates (acetate, glycolate, Spirulina extract and crude oils). Counts of most probable number showed a numerical abundance of AHB in the range of 1.15-8.13×106 cells g-1 and suggested the presence of halotolerant and thermotolerant populations. Most of the 16S rRNA sequences of the obtained clones and isolates were phylogenetically affiliated to the groups Gammaproteobacteria, Bacteriodetes and Alphaproteobacteria. Groups like Deltaproteobacteria, Verrucomicrobia, Planctomycetes, Spirochaetes, Acidobacteria and Deinococcus-Thermus were only detected by cloning. The strains isolated on acetate and glycolate belonged to the genera Marinobacter, Halomonas, Roseobacter and Rhodobacter whereas the strains enriched on crude oil belonged to Marinobacter and Alcanivorax. Members of the Bacteriodetes group were only enriched on Spirulina extract indicating their specialization in the degradation of cyanobacterial dead cells. The substrate spectra of representative strains showed the ability of all AHB to metabolize cyanobacterial photosynthetic and fermentation products. However, the unique in situ conditions of the mat apparently favored the enrichment of versatile strains that grew on both the cyanobacterial exudates and the hydrocarbons. We conclude that AHB in cyanobacterial mats represent a diverse community that plays an important role in carbon-cycling within microbial mats.
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