Organisms use proteins to perform an enormous range of functions that are essential for life. Proteins are usually composed of 20 different kinds of amino acids that each contain between one and four nitrogen atoms. In aggregate, the nitrogen atoms that are bound in proteins typically account for a substantial fraction of the nitrogen in a cell. Many organisms obtain the nitrogen that they use to make proteins from the environment, where its availability can vary greatly. These observations prompt the question: can environmental nitrogen scarcity lead to adaptive evolution in the nitrogen content of proteins? In this issue, Gilbert & Fagan (2011) address this question in the marine cyanobacteria Prochlorococcus, examining a variety of ways in which cells might be thrifty with nitrogen when making proteins. They show that different Prochlorococcus strains vary substantially in the average nitrogen content of their encoded proteins and relate this variation to nitrogen availability in different marine habitats and to genomic base composition (GC content). They also consider biases in the nitrogen content of different kinds of proteins. In most Prochlorococcus strains, a group of proteins that are commonly induced during nitrogen stress are poor in nitrogen relative to other proteins, probably reflecting selection for reduced nitrogen content. In contrast, ribosomal proteins are nitrogen rich relative to other Prochlorococcus proteins, and tend to be down-regulated during nitrogen limitation. This suggests the possibility that decaying ribosomal proteins act as a source of nitrogen-rich amino acids during periods of nitrogen stress. This work contributes to our understanding of how nutrient limitation might lead to adaptive variation in the composition of proteins and signals that marine microbes hold great promise for testing hypotheses about protein elemental costs in the future.
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.