Cyanobacteria-bryophyte symbioses

J Exp Bot. 2008;59(5):1047-58. doi: 10.1093/jxb/ern005. Epub 2008 Feb 10.


Cyanobacteria are a large group of photosynthetic prokaryotes of enormous environmental importance, being responsible for a large proportion of global CO(2) and N(2) fixation. They form symbiotic associations with a wide range of eukaryotic hosts including plants, fungi, sponges, and protists. The cyanobacterial symbionts are often filamentous and fix N(2) in specialized cells known as heterocysts, enabling them to provide the host with fixed nitrogen and, in the case of non-photosynthetic hosts, with fixed carbon. The best studied cyanobacterial symbioses are those with plants, in which the cyanobacteria can infect the roots, stems, leaves, and, in the case of the liverworts and hornworts, the subject of this review, the thallus. The symbionts are usually Nostoc spp. that gain entry to the host by means of specialized motile filaments known as hormogonia. The host plant releases chemical signals that stimulate hormogonia formation and, by chemoattraction, guide the hormogonia to the point of entry into the plant tissue. Inside the symbiotic cavity, host signals inhibit further hormogonia formation and stimulate heterocyst development and dinitrogen fixation. The cyanobionts undergo morphological and physiological changes, including reduced growth rate and CO(2) fixation, and enhanced N(2) fixation, and release to the plant much of the dinitrogen fixed. This short review summarizes knowledge of the cyanobacterial symbioses with liverworts and hornworts, with particular emphasis on the importance of pili and gliding motility for the symbiotic competence of hormogonia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bryophyta / microbiology*
  • Bryophyta / physiology
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism
  • Cell Movement
  • Chemotaxis
  • Cyanobacteria / pathogenicity
  • Cyanobacteria / physiology*
  • Fimbriae, Bacterial / physiology
  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Nostoc / physiology
  • Symbiosis*


  • Carbon Dioxide