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Environ Microbiol. 2010 Jan;12(1):222-38. doi: 10.1111/j.1462-2920.2009.02062.x. Epub 2009 Sep 29.

Widespread known and novel phosphonate utilization pathways in marine bacteria revealed by functional screening and metagenomic analyses.

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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Division of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA.


Phosphonates (Pn), compounds with a direct C-P bond instead of the more common C-O-P ester bond, constitute a significant fraction of marine dissolved organic phosphorus and recent evidence suggests that they may be an alternative source of P for marine microorganisms. To further characterize the microorganisms and pathways involved in Pn utilization, we screened bacterioplankton genomic libraries for their ability to complement an Escherichia coli strain unable to use Pns as a P source. Using this approach we identified a phosphonatase pathway as well as a novel pair of genes that allowed utilization of 2-aminoethylphosphonate (2-AEPn) as the sole P source. These pathways are present in diverse bacteria common in marine plankton including representatives of Proteobacteria, Planctomycetes and Cyanobacteria. Analysis of metagenomic databases for Pn utilization genes revealed that they are widespread and abundant among marine bacteria, suggesting that Pn metabolism is likely to play an important role in P-depleted surface waters, as well as in the more P-rich deep-water column.

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