Physiology and evolution of nitrate acquisition in Prochlorococcus

Paul M. Berube, Steven J. Biller, Alyssa G. Kent, Jessie W. Berta-Thompson, Sara E. Roggensack, Kathryn H. Roache-Johnson, Marcia Ackerman, Lisa R. Moore, Joshua D. Meisel, Daniel Sher, Luke R. Thompson, Lisa Campbell, Adam C. Martiny, Sallie W. Chisholm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prochlorococcus is the numerically dominant phototroph in the oligotrophic subtropical ocean and carries out a significant fraction of marine primary productivity. Although field studies have provided evidence for nitrate uptake by Prochlorococcus, little is known about this trait because axenic cultures capable of growth on nitrate have not been available. Additionally, all previously sequenced genomes lacked the genes necessary for nitrate assimilation. Here we introduce three Prochlorococcus strains capable of growth on nitrate and analyze their physiology and genome architecture. We show that the growth of high-light (HL) adapted strains on nitrate is ∼17% slower than their growth on ammonium. By analyzing 41 Prochlorococcus genomes, we find that genes for nitrate assimilation have been gained multiple times during the evolution of this group, and can be found in at least three lineages. In low-light adapted strains, nitrate assimilation genes are located in the same genomic context as in marine Synechococcus. These genes are located elsewhere in HL adapted strains and may often exist as a stable genetic acquisition as suggested by the striking degree of similarity in the order, phylogeny and location of these genes in one HL adapted strain and a consensus assembly of environmental Prochlorococcus metagenome sequences. In another HL adapted strain, nitrate utilization genes may have been independently acquired as indicated by adjacent phage mobility elements; these genes are also duplicated with each copy detected in separate genomic islands. These results provide direct evidence for nitrate utilization by Prochlorococcus and illuminate the complex evolutionary history of this trait.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1195-1207
Number of pages13
JournalISME Journal
Issue number5
StatePublished - 24 May 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 International Society for Microbial Ecology.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Microbiology


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