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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jun 30;106(26):10787-92. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0902532106. Epub 2009 Jun 23.

Widespread metabolic potential for nitrite and nitrate assimilation among Prochlorococcus ecotypes.

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  • 1Department of Earth System Science and Ecology, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697, USA. amartiny@uci.edu


The marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus is the most abundant photosynthetic organism in oligotrophic regions of the oceans. The inability to assimilate nitrate is considered an important factor underlying the distribution of Prochlorococcus, and thought to explain, in part, low abundance of Prochlorococcus in coastal, temperate, and upwelling zones. Here, we describe the widespread occurrence of a genomic island containing nitrite and nitrate assimilation genes in uncultured Prochlorococcus cells from marine surface waters. These genes are characterized by low GC content, form a separate phylogenetic clade most closely related to marine Synechococcus, and are located in a different genomic region compared with an orthologous cluster found in marine Synechococcus strains. This sequence distinction suggests that these genes were not transferred recently from Synechococcus. We demonstrate that the nitrogen assimilation genes encode functional proteins and are expressed in the ocean. Also, we find that their relative occurrence is higher in the Caribbean Sea and Indian Ocean compared with the Sargasso Sea and Eastern Pacific Ocean, which may be related to the nitrogen availability in each region. Our data suggest that the ability to assimilate nitrite and nitrate is associated with microdiverse lineages within high- and low-light (LL) adapted Prochlorococcus ecotypes. It challenges 2 long-held assumptions that (i) Prochlorococcus cannot assimilate nitrate, and (ii) only LL adapted ecotypes can use nitrite. The potential for previously unrecognized productivity by Prochlorococcus in the presence of oxidized nitrogen species has implications for understanding the biogeography of Prochlorococcus and its role in the oceanic carbon and nitrogen cycles.

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  • Prochlorococcus: approved for export. [Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009]
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