Motile strains of the unicellular cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. strain PCC 6803 readily aggregate into flocs, or floating multicellular assemblages, when grown in liquid culture. As described here, we used confocal imaging to probe the structure of these flocs, and we developed a quantitative assay for floc formation based on fluorescence imaging of 6-well plates. The flocs are formed from strands of linked cells, sometimes packed into dense clusters but also containing voids with very few cells. Cells within the dense clusters show signs of nutrient stress, as judged by the subcellular distribution of green fluorescent protein (GFP)-tagged Vipp1 protein. We analyzed the effects on flocculation of a series of mutations that alter piliation and motility, including Δhfq, ΔpilB1, ΔpilT1, and ΔushA mutations and deletion mutations affecting major and minor pilins. The extent of flocculation is increased in the hyperpiliated ΔpilT1 mutant, but active cycles of pilus extension and retraction are not required for flocculation. Deletion of PilA1, the major subunit of type IV pili, has no effect on flocculation; however, flocculation is lost in mutants lacking an operon coding for the minor pilins PilA9 to -11. Therefore, minor pilins appear crucial for flocculation. We show that flocculation is a tightly regulated process that is promoted by blue light perception by the cyanobacteriochrome Cph2. Floc formation also seems to be a highly cooperative process. A proportion of nonflocculating Δhfq cells can be incorporated into wild-type flocs, but the presence of a high proportion of Δhfq cells disrupts the large-scale architecture of the floc.IMPORTANCE Some bacteria form flocs, which are multicellular floating assemblages of many thousands of cells. Flocs have been relatively little studied compared to surface-adherent biofilms, but flocculation could play many physiological roles, be a crucial factor in marine carbon burial, and enable more efficient biotechnological cell harvesting. We studied floc formation and architecture in the model cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. strain PCC 6803, using mutants to identify specific cell surface structures required for floc formation. We show that floc formation is regulated by blue and green light perceived by the photoreceptor Cph2. The flocs have a characteristic structure based on strands of linked cells aggregating into dense clusters. Cells within the dense clusters show signs of nutrient stress, pointing to a disadvantage of floc formation.
Keywords: biofilms; cell adhesion; cyanobacteria; cyanobacteriochrome; flocculation; photoreceptors; type IV pili.
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