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Microbiology. 2004 May;150(Pt 5):1301-1313. doi: 10.1099/mic.0.26585-0.

NifH and NifD phylogenies: an evolutionary basis for understanding nitrogen fixation capabilities of methanotrophic bacteria.

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Institute of Microbiology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow 117312, Russia.
Max-Planck-Institut für terrestrische Mikrobiologie, Karl-von-Frisch-Str., D-35043 Marburg, Germany.


The ability to utilize dinitrogen as a nitrogen source is an important phenotypic trait in most currently known methanotrophic bacteria (MB). This trait is especially important for acidophilic MB, which inhabit acidic oligotrophic environments, highly depleted in available nitrogen compounds. Phylogenetically, acidophilic MB are most closely related to heterotrophic dinitrogen-fixing bacteria of the genus BEIJERINCKIA: To further explore the phylogenetic linkage between these metabolically different organisms, the sequences of nifH and nifD gene fragments from acidophilic MB of the genera Methylocella and Methylocapsa, and from representatives of Beijerinckia, were determined. For reference, nifH and nifD sequences were also obtained from some type II MB of the alphaproteobacterial Methylosinus/Methylocystis group and from gammaproteobacterial type I MB. The trees constructed for the inferred amino acid sequences of nifH and nifD were highly congruent. The phylogenetic relationships among MB in the NifH and NifD trees also agreed well with the corresponding 16S rRNA-based phylogeny, except for two distinctive features. First, different methods used for phylogenetic analysis grouped the NifH and NifD sequences of strains of the gammaproteobacterial MB Methylococcus capsulatus within a clade mainly characterized by Alphaproteobacteria, including acidophilic MB and type II MB of the Methylosinus/Methylocystis group. From this and other genomic data from Methylococcus capsulatus Bath, it is proposed that an ancient event of lateral gene transfer was responsible for this aberrant branching. Second, the identity values of NifH and NifD sequences between Methylocapsa acidiphila B2 and representatives of Beijerinckia were clearly higher (98.5 and 96.6 %, respectively) than would be expected from their 16S rRNA-based relationships. Possibly, these two bacteria originated from a common acidophilic dinitrogen-fixing ancestor, and were subject to similar evolutionary pressure with regard to nitrogen acquisition. This interpretation is corroborated by the observation that, in contrast to most other diazotrophs, M. acidiphila B2 and Beijerinckia spp. are capable of active growth on nitrogen-free media under fully aerobic conditions.

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