The physiology and evolution of microbial selenium metabolism

Michael Wells, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282, USA.
Partha Basu, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN 46202, USA.
John F. Stolz, Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282, USA.


Selenium is an essential trace element whose compounds are widely metabolized by organisms from all three domains of life. Moreover, phylogenetic evidence indicates that selenium species, along with iron, molybdenum, tungsten, and nickel, were metabolized by the last universal common ancestor of all cellular lineages, primarily for the synthesis of the 21st amino acid selenocysteine. Thus, selenium metabolism is both environmentally ubiquitous and a physiological adaptation of primordial life. Selenium metabolic reactions comprise reductive transformations both for assimilation into macromolecules and dissimilatory reduction of selenium oxyanions and elemental selenium during anaerobic respiration. This review offers a comprehensive overview of the physiology and evolution of both assimilatory and dissimilatory selenium metabolism in bacteria and archaea, highlighting mechanisms of selenium respiration. This includes a thorough discussion of our current knowledge of the physiology of selenocysteine synthesis and incorporation into proteins in bacteria obtained from structural biology. Additionally, this is the first comprehensive discussion in a review of the incorporation of selenium into the tRNA nucleoside 5-methylaminomethyl-2-selenouridine and as an inorganic cofactor in certain molybdenum hydroxylase enzymes. Throughout, conserved mechanisms and derived features of selenium metabolism in both domains are emphasized and discussed within the context of the global selenium biogeochemical cycle.