Compartmentalized cyanophycin metabolism in the diazotrophic filaments of a heterocyst-forming cyanobacterium

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Mar 11;111(10):3823-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318564111. Epub 2014 Feb 18.


Heterocyst-forming cyanobacteria are multicellular organisms in which growth requires the activity of two metabolically interdependent cell types, the vegetative cells that perform oxygenic photosynthesis and the dinitrogen-fixing heterocysts. Vegetative cells provide the heterocysts with reduced carbon, and heterocysts provide the vegetative cells with fixed nitrogen. Heterocysts conspicuously accumulate polar granules made of cyanophycin [multi-L-arginyl-poly (L-aspartic acid)], which is synthesized by cyanophycin synthetase and degraded by the concerted action of cyanophycinase (that releases β-aspartyl-arginine) and isoaspartyl dipeptidase (that produces aspartate and arginine). Cyanophycin synthetase and cyanophycinase are present at high levels in the heterocysts. Here we created a deletion mutant of gene all3922 encoding isoaspartyl dipeptidase in the model heterocyst-forming cyanobacterium Anabaena sp. strain PCC 7120. The mutant accumulated cyanophycin and β-aspartyl-arginine, and was impaired specifically in diazotrophic growth. Analysis of an Anabaena strain bearing an All3922-GFP (green fluorescent protein) fusion and determination of the enzyme activity in specific cell types showed that isoaspartyl dipeptidase is present at significantly lower levels in heterocysts than in vegetative cells. Consistently, isolated heterocysts released substantial amounts of β-aspartyl-arginine. These observations imply that β-aspartyl-arginine produced from cyanophycin in the heterocysts is transferred intercellularly to be hydrolyzed, producing aspartate and arginine in the vegetative cells. Our results showing compartmentalized metabolism of cyanophycin identify the nitrogen-rich molecule β-aspartyl-arginine as a nitrogen vehicle in the unique multicellular system represented by the heterocyst-forming cyanobacteria.

Keywords: intercellular communication; nitrogen fixation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anabaena / growth & development
  • Anabaena / metabolism*
  • Arginine / metabolism
  • Aspartic Acid / metabolism
  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Blotting, Western
  • Dipeptidases / genetics
  • Dipeptidases / metabolism
  • Dipeptides / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Mutagenesis
  • Nitrogen / metabolism*
  • Nitrogen Fixation / physiology*
  • Sequence Deletion / genetics


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Dipeptides
  • cyanophycin
  • Aspartic Acid
  • Arginine
  • Dipeptidases
  • beta-aspartyl peptidase
  • Nitrogen