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In very alkaline environments, microbes that reduce sulfur and iron co-exist. This requires two completely different enzymatic mechanisms, and it's evolutionarily expensive for microbes to keep the genes necessary to carry out both processes.

This process can slowly but steadily make dramatic changes to the makeup of the rock, soil and water.

"That means that how these microbes breathe affects what happens to pollutants—whether they travel or stay put—as well as groundwater quality," said Ted Flynn, a scientist from Argonne and the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study.

About a fifth of the world's population relies on groundwater from aquifers for their drinking water supply, and many more depend on the crops watered by aquifers.

For decades, scientists thought that when iron was present in these types of deep aquifers, microbes who can breathe it would out-compete those who cannot.

There's an accepted hierarchy of what microbes prefer to breathe, according to how much energy each reaction can theoretically yield.

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