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Recent Publications


Many partnerships have been formed between nitrogen-fixing microbes and carbon-fixing eukaryotes that need nitrogen to grow. The possibility of a eukaryote with a nitrogen-fixing organelle derived from endosymbiosis, which is called a nitroplast, has been speculated. Studying a marine alga with a cyanobacterial endosymbiont, Coale et al. used soft x-ray tomography to visualize cell morphology and division of the alga, revealing a coordinated cell cycle in which the endosymbiont divides and is split evenly, similar to the situation for plastids and mitochondria in these cells (see the Perspective by Massana). Proteomics revealed that a sizable fraction of the proteins in this structure are encoded by and imported from the alga, including many that are essential for biosynthesis, cell growth, and division. These results offer a fascinating view into the transition from an endosymbiont into a bona fide organelle. —Michael A. Funk

F.M. Cornejo-Castillo, K. Inomura, J.P. Zehr, M.J. Follows (2024) Cell 

Biological dinitrogen (N2) fixation is a key metabolic process exclusively performed by prokaryotes, some of which are symbiotic with eukaryotes. Species of the marine haptophyte algae Braarudosphaera bigelowii harbor the N2-fixing endosymbiotic cyanobacteria UCYN-A, which might be evolving organelle-like characteristics. We found that the size ratio between UCYN-A and their hosts is strikingly conserved across sublineages/species, which is consistent with the size relationships of organelles in this symbiosis and other species. Metabolic modeling showed that this size relationship maximizes the coordinated growth rate based on trade-offs between resource acquisition and exchange. Our findings show that the size relationships of N2-fixing endosymbionts and organelles in unicellular eukaryotes are constrained by predictable metabolic underpinnings and that UCYN-A is, in many regards, functioning like a hypothetical N2-fixing organelle (or nitroplast).

V. Loconte, K.A. Turk-Kubo, B. Vanslembrouck, W.K.E. Mak, A. Ekman, J. Chen, Y. Takano, T. Horiguchi, M.A Le Gros, K. Hagino, J.P Zehr, C.A Larabell (2024) Biophysical Journal

Biological nitrogen (N2) fixation is critical in global biogeochemical cycles and in sustaining the productivity of the oceans. There remain many unanswered questions, unresolved hypotheses, and unchallenged paradigms. The fundamental balance of N input and losses has not been fully resolved. One of the major N2-fixers, Trichodesmium, remains an enigma with intriguing biological and ecological secrets. Cyanobacterial N2fixation, once thought to be primarily due to free-living cyanobacteria, now also appears to be dependent on microbial interactions, from microbiomes to unicellular symbioses, which remain poorly characterized. Nitrogenase genes associated with diverse non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs (NCDs) are prevalent, but their significance remains a huge knowledge gap. Answering questions, new and old, such as those discussed here, is needed to understand the ocean’s N and C cycles and their responses to environmental change.

K.A. Turk-Kubo, B.A .Henke, M.R. Gradoville, J.D. Magasin, M.J. Church, J.P. Zehr (2023) Frontiers in Marine Science

Dinitrogen (N2) fixation is carried out by specialized microbes, called diazotrophs, and is a major source of nitrogen supporting primary production in oligotrophic oceans. One of the best-characterized diazotroph habitats is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), where warm, chronically N-limited surface waters promote year-round N2 fixation. At Station ALOHA (A Long-Term Oligotrophic Habitat Assessment) in the NPSG, N2 fixation is typically ascribed to conspicuous, filamentous cyanobacterial diazotrophs (Trichodesmium and Richelia), unicellular free-living Crocosphaera, and the UCYN-A/haptophyte symbiosis, based on using microscopy and quantitative PCR (qPCR). However, the diazotroph community in this ecosystem is diverse and includes non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs (NCDs). We investigated the diversity, depth distributions, and seasonality of diazotroph communities at Stn. ALOHA using high throughput sequencing (HTS) of nifH gene fragments from samples collected throughout the euphotic zone (0-175 m) at near-monthly intervals from June 2013 to July 2016. The UCYN-A symbioses and Trichodesmium sp. consistently had the highest relative abundances and seasonal patterns that corroborated qPCR-based analyses. Other prevalent community members included a new Crocosphaera-like species, and several NCDs affiliated with γ- and δ-proteobacteria. Notably, some of the NCDs appear to be stable components of the community at Stn. ALOHA, having also been reported in prior studies. Depth and temporal patterns in microdiversity within two major diazotroph groups (Trichodesmium and UCYN-A) suggested that sub-populations are adapted to time- and depth-dependent environmental variation. A network analysis of the upper euphotic (0-75 m) HTS data identified two modules that reflect a diazotroph community structure with seasonal turnover between UCYN-A/Gamma A, and Trichodesmium/Crocosphaera. It also reveals the seasonality of several important cyanobacteria and NCDs about which little is known, including a putative δ-proteobacterial phylotype originally discovered at Stn. ALOHA. Collectively, these results underscore the importance of coupling nifH gene HTS with other molecular techniques to obtain a comprehensive view of diazotroph community composition in the marine environment and reveal several understudied diazotroph groups that may contribute to N2 fixation in the NPSG.

J.P. Zehr & D.G. Capone (2020) Trends in Microbiology

Biological nitrogen (N2) fixation is critical in global biogeochemical cycles and in sustaining the productivity of the oceans. There remain many unanswered questions, unresolved hypotheses, and unchallenged paradigms. The fundamental balance of N input and losses has not been fully resolved. One of the major N2-fixers, Trichodesmium, remains an enigma with intriguing biological and ecological secrets. Cyanobacterial N2fixation, once thought to be primarily due to free-living cyanobacteria, now also appears to be dependent on microbial interactions, from microbiomes to unicellular symbioses, which remain poorly characterized. Nitrogenase genes associated with diverse non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs (NCDs) are prevalent, but their significance remains a huge knowledge gap. Answering questions, new and old, such as those discussed here, is needed to understand the ocean’s N and C cycles and their responses to environmental change.

A.M. Cabello, K.A. Turk-Kubo,  K. Hayashi, L. Jacobs, R. M. Kudela, and J.P. Zehr (2020) Journal of Phycology 

In the last decade, the known biogeography of nitrogen fixation in the ocean has been expanded to colder and nitrogen-rich coastal environments. The symbiotic nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria group A (UCYN-A) has been revealed as one of the most abundant and widespread nitrogen-fixers, and includes several sublineages that live associated with genetically distinct but closely related prymnesiophyte hosts. The UCYN-A1 sublineage is associated with an open ocean picoplanktonic prymnesiophyte, whereas UCYN-A2 is associated with the coastal nanoplanktonic coccolithophore Braarudosphaera bigelowii, suggesting that different sublineages may be adapted to different environments. Here, we study the diversity of nifH genes present at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf in the Monterey Bay (MB), California, and report for the first time the presence of multiple UCYN-A sublineages, unexpectedly dominated by the UCYN- A2 sublineage. Sequence and quantitative PCR data over an 8-year time-series (2011–2018) showed a shift toward increasing UCYN-A2 abundances after 2013, and a marked seasonality for this sublineage which was present during summer-fall months, coinciding with the upwelling-relaxation period in the MB. Increased abundances corresponded to positive temperature anomalies in MB, and we discuss the possibility of a benthic life stage of the associated coccolithophore host to explain the seasonal pattern. The dominance of UCYN-A2 in coastal waters of the MB underscores the need to further explore the habitat preference of the different sublineages in order to provide additional support for the hypothesis that UCYN-A1 and UCYN-A2 sublineages are different ecotypes.

Changing perspectives in marine nitrogen fixation

J.P. Zehr & D.G. Capone (2020) Science

As a component of many biomolecules, nitrogen is a crucial element for life, especially in nutrient-poor environs such as the open ocean. Atmospheric dinitrogen gas (N2) is abundant but must be fixed by reduction to ammonia, a process limited to certain organisms and environments. Zehr and Capone review changes in our understanding of what marine microorganisms are fixing N2, where they live, and what environmental features influence their activity. N2 fixation is more widely distributed than previously thought, and we still have much to learn about the physiology and regulation involved. We now have better estimates of global- and basin-scale inputs and outputs, but questions remain as to whether the oceanic N cycle is balanced. New tools are enabling better understanding of ocean N2 fixation despite disruptive consequences from human activities, including ocean acidification and warming.

How microbes survive in the open ocean

J.P. Zehr, J.S. Weitz, I. Joint (2017) Science.

Marine microbes are fundamental components of food webs and the biogeochemical cycles that maintain the habitability of the planet. In the oligotrophic open ocean, these microscopic organisms live in a dilute environment separated from other cells by large distances at the microscale while surrounded by very few essential nutrient molecules. For ubiquitous sub-micron sized and non-motile microbes, cellular growth requirements for hundreds of millions (or more) of nutrient molecules are sustained predominantly by rapid molecular diffusion. Characterizing the interactions of cells and molecules in the “empty space” of the ocean remains central to understanding the drivers and consequences of oceanic biogeochemical cycles.

Differential effects of nitrate, ammonium, and urea as N sources for microbial communities in the North Pacific Ocean

I.N. Shilova, M.M. Mills, J.C. Robidart, K. A. Turk-Kubo, K.M. Bjorkman, Z. Kolber, I.Rapp, G.L. van Dijken, M.J. Church, K.R. Arrigo, & J.P. Zehr (2017) Limnology and Oceanography.

Nitrogen (N) is the major limiting nutrient for phytoplankton growth and productivity in large parts of the world's oceans. Differential preferences for specific N substrates may be important in controlling phytoplankton community composition. To date, there is limited information on how specific N substrates influence the composition of naturally occurring microbial communities. We investigated the effect of nitrate, ammonium, and urea on microbial and phytoplankton community composition (cell abundances and 16S rRNA gene profiling) and functioning (photosynthetic activity, carbon fixation rates) in the oligotrophic waters of the North Pacific Ocean. All N substrates tested significantly stimulated phytoplankton growth and productivity. Urea resulted in the greatest (>300%) increases in chlorophyll a (<0.06 μg L−1 and ∼0.19 μg L−1 in the control and urea addition, respectively) and productivity (<0.4 μmol C L−1 d−1 and ∼1.4 μmol C L−1 d−1 in the control and urea addition, respectively) at two experimental stations, largely due to increased abundances of Prochlorococcus(Cyanobacteria). Two abundant clades of Prochlorococcus, High Light I and II, demonstrated similar responses to urea, suggesting this substrate is likely an important N source for natural Prochlorococcus populations. In contrast, the heterotrophic community composition changed most in response to NH4+. Finally, the time and magnitude of response to N amendments varied with geographic location, likely due to differences in microbial community composition and their nutrient status. Our results provide support for the hypothesis that changes in N supply would likely favor specific populations of phytoplankton in different oceanic regions and thus, affect both biogeochemical cycles and ecological processes.

Unusual marine unicellular symbiosis with the nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium UCYN-A

J.P. Zehr, I.N., Shilova, H. M. Farnelid, M. Munoz-Marin, & K. Turk-Kubo  (2016) Nature Microbiology.

Nitrogen fixation — the reduction of dinitrogen (N2) gas to biologically available nitrogen (N) — is an important source of N for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In terrestrial environments, N2-fixing symbioses involve multicellular plants, but in the marine environment these symbioses occur with unicellular planktonic algae. An unusual symbiosis between an uncultivated unicellular cyanobacterium (UCYN-A) and a haptophyte picoplankton alga was recently discovered in oligotrophic oceans. UCYN-A has a highly reduced genome, and exchanges fixed N for fixed carbon with its host. This symbiosis bears some resemblance to symbioses found in freshwater ecosystems. UCYN-A shares many core genes with the ‘spheroid bodies’ of Epithemia turgida and the endosymbionts of the amoeba Paulinella chromatophora. UCYN-A is widely distributed, and has diversified into a number of sublineages that could be ecotypes. Many questions remain regarding the physical and genetic mechanisms of the association, but UCYN-A is an intriguing model for contemplating the evolution of N2-fixing organelles.

New insights into the ecology of the globally significant uncultured nitrogen-fixing symbiont UCYN-A

H. Farnelid, K. Turk-Kubo, M. Munoz-Marin, & J.P. Zehr (2016) Aquatic Microbial Ecology.

Cyanobacterial nitrogen-fixers (diazotrophs) play a key role in biogeochemical cycling of carbon and nitrogen in the ocean. In recent years, the unusual symbiotic diazotrophic cyanobacterium Atelocyanobacterium thalassa (UCYN-A) has been recognized as one of the major diazotrophs in the tropical and subtropical oceans. In this review, we summarize what is currently known about the geographic distribution of UCYN-A, as well as the environmental factors that govern its distribution. In addition, by compiling UCYN-A nifH sequences from the GenBank no. database as well as those from nifHgene amplicon next generation sequencing studies, we present an in-depth analysis of the distribution of defined UCYN-A sublineages (UCYN-A1, UCYN-A2 and UCYN-A3) and identify a novel sublineage, UCYN-A4, which may be significant in some environments. Each UCYN-A sublineage exhibited a remarkable global distribution pattern and several UCYN-A sublineages frequently co-occurred within the same sample, suggesting that if they represent different ecotypes they have overlapping niches. Recently, single cell visualization techniques using specific probes targeting UCYN-A1 and UCYN-A2 and their respective associated eukaryotic partner cells showed that the size of the consortia and the number of UCYN-A cells differed between these 2 sublineages. Combined, the results highlight that UCYN-A sublineages likely have different physiological requirements, which need to be accounted for in future studies. Furthermore, based on our increasing knowledge of the diversity of the UCYN-A lineage, we discuss some of the limitations of currently used cultivation-independent molecular techniques for the identification and quantification of UCYN-A.

How Single Cells work together

J.P. Zehr (2015) Science

Symbiotic interactions are fundamental to life on Earth and were critical for the evolution of organelles that led to the success of eukaryotes on the planet. Such mutualistic interactions between unicellular microorganisms and multicellular plants and animals are pervasive in natural and agricultural ecosystems (1). In contrast, very little is known about symbiotic interactions between unicellular partners. Recent studies have revealed single-celled nitrogen-fixing symbioses that require different mechanisms to maintain symbiosis than seen in multicellular systems.

Genetic Diversity Affects the Daily Transcriptional Oscillations of Marine Microbial Populations

I.N.Shilova, J.C. Robidart, E.F. DeLong, and J.P. Zehr (2016) PLOS One 

Marine microbial communities are genetically diverse but have robust synchronized daily transcriptional patterns at the genus level that are similar across a wide variety of oceanic regions. We developed a microarray-inspired gene-centric approach to resolve transcription of closely-related but distinct strains/ecotypes in high-throughput sequence data. Applying this approach to the existing metatranscriptomics datasets collected from two different oceanic regions, we found unique and variable patterns of transcription by individual taxa within the abundant picocyanobacteria Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus, the alpha Proteobacterium Pelagibacter and the eukaryotic picophytoplankton Ostreococcus. The results demonstrate that marine microbial taxa respond differentially to variability in space and time in the ocean. These intra-genus individual transcriptional patterns underlie whole microbial community responses, and the approach developed here facilitates deeper insights into microbial population dynamics.

Comparative genomics reveals surprising divergence of two closely related strains of UCYN-A cyanobacteria

D. Bombar, P. Heller, P. Sanchez-Baracaldo, B.J. Carter & J.P. Zehr (2014) ISME J.

Marine planktonic cyanobacteria capable of fixing molecular nitrogen (termed ‘diazotrophs’) are key in biogeochemical cycling, and the nitrogen fixed is one of the major external sources of nitrogen to the open ocean. Candidatus Atelocyanobacterium thalassa (UCYN-A) is a diazotrophic cyanobacterium known for its widespread geographic distribution in tropical and subtropical oligotrophic oceans, unusually reduced genome and symbiosis with a single-celled prymnesiophyte alga. Recently a novel strain of this organism was also detected in coastal waters sampled from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography pier. We analyzed the metagenome of this UCYN-A2 population by concentrating cells by flow cytometry. Phylogenomic analysis provided strong bootstrap support for the monophyly of UCYN-A (here called UCYN-A1) and UCYN-A2 within the marine Crocosphaera sp. and Cyanothece sp. clade. UCYN-A2 shares 1159 of the 1200 UCYN-A1 protein-coding genes (96.6%) with high synteny, yet the average amino-acid sequence identity between these orthologs is only 86%. UCYN-A2 lacks the same major pathways and proteins that are absent in UCYN-A1, suggesting that both strains can be grouped at the same functional and ecological level. Our results suggest that UCYN-A1 and UCYN-A2 had a common ancestor and diverged after genome reduction. These two variants may reflect adaptation of the host to different niches, which could be coastal and open ocean habitats.

Ecogenomic sensor reveals controls on N2-fixing microorganisms in the North Pacific Ocean

J.C. Robidart, M.J. Church, J.P. Ryan, F. Ascani, S.T. Wilson, D. Bombar, R. Marin III, K.J. Richards, D.M. Karl, C.A. Scholin, & J.P. Zehr (2014) ISME J.

Nitrogen-fixing microorganisms (diazotrophs) are keystone species that reduce atmospheric dinitrogen (N2) gas to fixed nitrogen (N), thereby accounting for much of N-based new production annually in the oligotrophic North Pacific. However, current approaches to study N2fixation provide relatively limited spatiotemporal sampling resolution; hence, little is known about the ecological controls on these microorganisms or the scales over which they change. In the present study, we used a drifting robotic gene sensor to obtain high-resolution data on the distributions and abundances of N2-fixing populations over small spatiotemporal scales. The resulting measurements demonstrate that concentrations of N2 fixers can be highly variable, changing in abundance by nearly three orders of magnitude in less than 2 days and 30 km. Concurrent shipboard measurements and long-term time-series sampling uncovered a striking and previously unrecognized correlation between phosphate, which is undergoing long-term change in the region, and N2-fixing cyanobacterial abundances. These results underscore the value of high-resolution sampling and its applications for modeling the effects of global change.

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