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ISME J. 2015 Feb;9(2):297-309. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2014.123. Epub 2014 Jul 11.

New insights into iron acquisition by cyanobacteria: an essential role for ExbB-ExbD complex in inorganic iron uptake.

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  • 1School of Life Sciences and Hubei Key Laboratory of Genetic Regulation and Integrative Biology, Central China Normal University, Hubei, People's Republic of China.
  • 2Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, Québec, Canada.


Cyanobacteria are globally important primary producers that have an exceptionally large iron requirement for photosynthesis. In many aquatic ecosystems, the levels of dissolved iron are so low and some of the chemical species so unreactive that growth of cyanobacteria is impaired. Pathways of iron uptake through cyanobacterial membranes are now being elucidated, but the molecular details are still largely unknown. Here we report that the non-siderophore-producing cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 contains three exbB-exbD gene clusters that are obligatorily required for growth and are involved in iron acquisition. The three exbB-exbDs are redundant, but single and double mutants have reduced rates of iron uptake compared with wild-type cells, and the triple mutant appeared to be lethal. Short-term measurements in chemically well-defined medium show that iron uptake by Synechocystis depends on inorganic iron (Fe') concentration and ExbB-ExbD complexes are essentially required for the Fe' transport process. Although transport of iron bound to a model siderophore, ferrioxamine B, is also reduced in the exbB-exbD mutants, the rate of uptake at similar total [Fe] is about 800-fold slower than Fe', suggesting that hydroxamate siderophore iron uptake may be less ecologically relevant than free iron. These results provide the first evidence that ExbB-ExbD is involved in inorganic iron uptake and is an essential part of the iron acquisition pathway in cyanobacteria. The involvement of an ExbB-ExbD system for inorganic iron uptake may allow cyanobacteria to more tightly maintain iron homeostasis, particularly in variable environments where iron concentrations range from limiting to sufficient.

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