Faculty Research & Creative Activity

Document Type


Publication Date

January 2008


Acetogens utilize the acetyl-CoA Wood-Ljungdahl pathway as a terminal electron-accepting, energy-conserving, CO2-fixing process. The decades of research to resolve the enzymology of this pathway (1) preceded studies demonstrating that acetogens not only harbor a novel CO2-fixing pathway, but are also ecologically important, and (2) overshadowed the novel microbiological discoveries of acetogens and acetogenesis. The first acetogen to be isolated, Clostridium aceticum, was reported by Klaas Tammo Wieringa in 1936, but was subsequently lost. The second acetogen to be isolated, Clostridium thermoaceticum, was isolated by Francis Ephraim Fontaine and co-workers in 1942. C. thermoaceticum became the most extensively studied acetogen and was used to resolve the enzymology of the acetyl-CoA pathway in the laboratories of Harland Goff Wood and Lars Gerhard Ljungdahl. Although acetogenesis initially intrigued few scientists, this novel process fostered several scientific milestones, including the first 14C-tracer studies in biology and the discovery that tungsten is a biologically active metal. The acetyl-CoA pathway is now recognized as a fundamental component of the global carbon cycle and essential to the metabolic potentials of many different prokaryotes. The acetyl-CoA pathway and variants thereof appear to be important to primary production in certain habitats and may have been the first autotrophic process on earth and important to the evolution of life. The purpose of this article is to (1) pay tribute to those who discovered acetogens and acetogenesis, and to those who resolved the acetyl-CoA pathway, and (2) highlight the ecology and physiology of acetogens within the framework of their scientific roots.