Hydrogen sulfide often results from the bacterial breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen, such as in swamps and sewers; this process is commonly known as anaerobic digestion.
It forms a complex bond with iron in the mitochondrial cytochrome enzymes, thus preventing cellular respiration.
Since hydrogen sulfide occurs naturally in the body, the environment and the gut, enzymes exist in the body capable of detoxifying it by oxidation to (harmless) sulfate.
Participant in the sulfur cycle
Main article: Sulfur cycle.
Hydrogen sulfide is a central participant in the sulfur cycle, the biogeochemical cycle of sulfur on Earth. In the absence of oxygen, sulfur-reducing and sulfate-reducing bacteria derive energy from oxidizing hydrogen or organic molecules by reducing elemental sulfur or sulfate to hydrogen sulfide. Other bacteria liberate hydrogen sulfide from sulfur-containing amino acids; this gives rise to the odor of rotten eggs and contributes to the odor of flatulence.