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J Bacteriol. Nov 1991; 173(22): 7098–7105.
PMCID: PMC209215

Independent regulation of nifHDK operon transcription and DNA rearrangement during heterocyst differentiation in the cyanobacterium Anabaena sp. strain PCC 7120.


The filamentous cyanobacterium Anabaena sp. strain PCC 7120 expresses the genes required for nitrogen fixation in terminally differentiated cells called heterocysts. The nifHDK operon encodes the nitrogenase polypeptides and is expressed at high levels in heterocysts. During heterocyst differentiation, an 11-kb DNA element is excised from the nifD gene by site-specific recombination. The xisA gene, located on the 11-kb element, is required for the excision of the element. Transcription and DNA rearrangement of the nifHDK operon both occur late during heterocyst differentiation, about 18 to 24 h after induction, suggesting that the regulation of these events might be coupled. We show that heterocyst-specific transcription and DNA rearrangement of the nifHDK operon are independent of one another. Northern (RNA) analysis of the xisA mutant strain DW12-2.2, which cannot excise the nifD 11-kb element or fix nitrogen, showed that the nifH and nifD genes are transcribed on unrearranged chromosomes. The nifK gene was not transcribed in DW12-2.2, indicating that its expression is dependent on the nifH promoter and excision of the 11-kb element from the operon. A 1.68-kb DNA fragment containing the nifH promoter was deleted from the chromosome to produce the mutant strain LW1. LW1 formed heterocysts but did not grow on nitrogen-free medium and showed no transcription through nifD. Southern analysis of LW1 showed normal excision of the 11-kb element from the nifHDK operon, indicating that transcription from the nifH promoter is not required for the developmentally regulated DNA rearrangement.

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