Unicellular Cyanobacterium Symbiotic with a Single-Celled Eukaryotic Alga

Science  21 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6101, pp. 1546-1550
DOI: 10.1126/science.1222700

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Fixing on a Marine Partnership

Nitrogen fixation by microorganisms determines the productivity of the biosphere. Although plants photosynthesize by virtue of the ancient incorporation of cyanobacteria to form chloroplasts, no equivalent endosymbiotic event has occurred for nitrogen fixation. Nevertheless, in terrestrial environments, nitrogen-fixing symbioses between bacteria and plants, for example, are common. Thompson et al. (p. 1546) noticed that the ubiquitous marine cyanobacterium UCYN-A has an unusually streamlined genome lacking components of the photosynthetic machinery and central carbon metabolism—all suggestive of being an obligate symbiont. By using gentle filtration methods for raw seawater, a tiny eukaryote partner for UCYN-A of less than 3-µm in diameter was discovered. The bacterium sits on the cell wall of this calcifying picoeukaryote, donating fixed nitrogen and receiving fixed carbon in return.


Symbioses between nitrogen (N)2–fixing prokaryotes and photosynthetic eukaryotes are important for nitrogen acquisition in N-limited environments. Recently, a widely distributed planktonic uncultured nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium (UCYN-A) was found to have unprecedented genome reduction, including the lack of oxygen-evolving photosystem II and the tricarboxylic acid cycle, which suggested partnership in a symbiosis. We showed that UCYN-A has a symbiotic association with a unicellular prymnesiophyte, closely related to calcifying taxa present in the fossil record. The partnership is mutualistic, because the prymnesiophyte receives fixed N in exchange for transferring fixed carbon to UCYN-A. This unusual partnership between a cyanobacterium and a unicellular alga is a model for symbiosis and is analogous to plastid and organismal evolution, and if calcifying, may have important implications for past and present oceanic N2 fixation.

  • Present address: Department of Isotope Biogeochemistry, UFZ–Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig 04318, Germany.

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