Temporal Patterns and Intra- and Inter-Cellular Variability in Carbon and Nitrogen Assimilation by the Unicellular Cyanobacterium Cyanothece sp. ATCC 51142

Front Microbiol. 2021 Feb 4;12:620915. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2021.620915. eCollection 2021.


Unicellular nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria (UCYN) are abundant members of phytoplankton communities in a wide range of marine environments, including those with rapidly changing nitrogen (N) concentrations. We hypothesized that differences in N availability (N2 vs. combined N) would cause UCYN to shift strategies of intracellular N and C allocation. We used transmission electron microscopy and nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry imaging to track assimilation and intracellular allocation of 13C-labeled CO2 and 15N-labeled N2 or NO3 at different periods across a diel cycle in Cyanothece sp. ATCC 51142. We present new ideas on interpreting these imaging data, including the influences of pre-incubation cellular C and N contents and turnover rates of inclusion bodies. Within cultures growing diazotrophically, distinct subpopulations were detected that fixed N2 at night or in the morning. Additional significant within-population heterogeneity was likely caused by differences in the relative amounts of N assimilated into cyanophycin from sources external and internal to the cells. Whether growing on N2 or NO3, cells prioritized cyanophycin synthesis when N assimilation rates were highest. N assimilation in cells growing on NO3 switched from cyanophycin synthesis to protein synthesis, suggesting that once a cyanophycin quota is met, it is bypassed in favor of protein synthesis. Growth on NO3 also revealed that at night, there is a very low level of CO2 assimilation into polysaccharides simultaneous with their catabolism for protein synthesis. This study revealed multiple, detailed mechanisms underlying C and N management in Cyanothece that facilitate its success in dynamic aquatic environments.

Keywords: Crocosphaera subtropica (former Cyanothece sp. ATCC 51142); Cyanothece; TEM; carbon fixation; nanoSIMS; nitrogen fixation; photosynthesis.