Use of “Specific” Inhibitors in Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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Abstract

The above statement, although meant to be tongue in cheek, contains an essential truism: all work with inhibitors is inherently suspect. This fact has been known by biochemists for some time. However, use of chemical inhibitors of enzymic systems and membranes continues to be a common approach taken toward unraveling the biochemistry and biophysics of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Various types of “broad-spectrum” biochemical inhibitors (e.g., poisons, respiratory inhibitors, and uncouplers) have been employed by ecologists for many years in order to demonstrate the active participation of microbes in chemical reactions occurring in natural samples (e.g., soils, sediments, and water). In recent years, considerable advances have been made in our understanding of the biochemistry of microorganisms of biogeochemical interest. Concurrent with these advances have been the discoveries of novel types of compounds that will block the metabolism of one particular group of microbes, but have little disruptive effect on other physiological types. Thus, the term “specific inhibitor” has been applied to these types of compounds when they are used to probe the functions of mixed populations of microorganisms. These substances provide powerful experimental tools for investigating the activity and function of certain types of microorganisms in natural samples.