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1.  Patterns and Implications of Gene Gain and Loss in the Evolution of Prochlorococcus 
PLoS Genetics  2007;3(12):e231.
Prochlorococcus is a marine cyanobacterium that numerically dominates the mid-latitude oceans and is the smallest known oxygenic phototroph. Numerous isolates from diverse areas of the world's oceans have been studied and shown to be physiologically and genetically distinct. All isolates described thus far can be assigned to either a tightly clustered high-light (HL)-adapted clade, or a more divergent low-light (LL)-adapted group. The 16S rRNA sequences of the entire Prochlorococcus group differ by at most 3%, and the four initially published genomes revealed patterns of genetic differentiation that help explain physiological differences among the isolates. Here we describe the genomes of eight newly sequenced isolates and combine them with the first four genomes for a comprehensive analysis of the core (shared by all isolates) and flexible genes of the Prochlorococcus group, and the patterns of loss and gain of the flexible genes over the course of evolution. There are 1,273 genes that represent the core shared by all 12 genomes. They are apparently sufficient, according to metabolic reconstruction, to encode a functional cell. We describe a phylogeny for all 12 isolates by subjecting their complete proteomes to three different phylogenetic analyses. For each non-core gene, we used a maximum parsimony method to estimate which ancestor likely first acquired or lost each gene. Many of the genetic differences among isolates, especially for genes involved in outer membrane synthesis and nutrient transport, are found within the same clade. Nevertheless, we identified some genes defining HL and LL ecotypes, and clades within these broad ecotypes, helping to demonstrate the basis of HL and LL adaptations in Prochlorococcus. Furthermore, our estimates of gene gain events allow us to identify highly variable genomic islands that are not apparent through simple pairwise comparisons. These results emphasize the functional roles, especially those connected to outer membrane synthesis and transport that dominate the flexible genome and set it apart from the core. Besides identifying islands and demonstrating their role throughout the history of Prochlorococcus, reconstruction of past gene gains and losses shows that much of the variability exists at the “leaves of the tree,” between the most closely related strains. Finally, the identification of core and flexible genes from this 12-genome comparison is largely consistent with the relative frequency of Prochlorococcus genes found in global ocean metagenomic databases, further closing the gap between our understanding of these organisms in the lab and the wild.
Author Summary
Prochlorococcus—the most abundant photosynthetic microbe living in the vast, nutrient-poor areas of the ocean—is a major contributor to the global carbon cycle. Prochlorococcus is composed of closely related, physiologically distinct lineages whose differences enable the group as a whole to proliferate over a broad range of environmental conditions. We compare the genomes of 12 strains of Prochlorococcus representing its major lineages in order to identify genetic differences affecting the ecology of different lineages and their evolutionary origin. First, we identify the core genome: the 1,273 genes shared among all strains. This core set of genes encodes the essentials of a functional cell, enabling it to make living matter out of sunlight and carbon dioxide. We then create a genomic tree that maps the gain and loss of non-core genes in individual strains, showing that a striking number of genes are gained or lost even among the most closely related strains. We find that lost and gained genes commonly cluster in highly variable regions called genomic islands. The level of diversity among the non-core genes, and the number of new genes added with each new genome sequenced, suggest far more diversity to be discovered.
PMCID: PMC2151091  PMID: 18159947
2.  Resolution of Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus Ecotypes by Using 16S-23S Ribosomal DNA Internal Transcribed Spacer Sequences 
Cultured isolates of the marine cyanobacteria Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus vary widely in their pigment compositions and growth responses to light and nutrients, yet show greater than 96% identity in their 16S ribosomal DNA (rDNA) sequences. In order to better define the genetic variation that accompanies their physiological diversity, sequences for the 16S-23S rDNA internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region were determined in 32 Prochlorococcus isolates and 25 Synechococcus isolates from around the globe. Each strain examined yielded one ITS sequence that contained two tRNA genes. Dramatic variations in the length and G+C content of the spacer were observed among the strains, particularly among Prochlorococcus strains. Secondary-structure models of the ITS were predicted in order to facilitate alignment of the sequences for phylogenetic analyses. The previously observed division of Prochlorococcus into two ecotypes (called high and low-B/A after their differences in chlorophyll content) were supported, as was the subdivision of the high-B/A ecotype into four genetically distinct clades. ITS-based phylogenies partitioned marine cluster A Synechococcus into six clades, three of which can be associated with a particular phenotype (motility, chromatic adaptation, and lack of phycourobilin). The pattern of sequence divergence within and between clades is suggestive of a mode of evolution driven by adaptive sweeps and implies that each clade represents an ecologically distinct population. Furthermore, many of the clades consist of strains isolated from disparate regions of the world's oceans, implying that they are geographically widely distributed. These results provide further evidence that natural populations of Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus consist of multiple coexisting ecotypes, genetically closely related but physiologically distinct, which may vary in relative abundance with changing environmental conditions.
PMCID: PMC123739  PMID: 11872466
3.  Intertwined Evolutionary Histories of Marine Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus marinus 
Prochlorococcus is a genus of marine cyanobacteria characterized by small cell and genome size, an evolutionary trend toward low GC content, the possession of chlorophyll b, and the absence of phycobilisomes. Whereas many shared derived characters define Prochlorococcus as a clade, many genome-based analyses recover them as paraphyletic, with some low-light adapted Prochlorococcus spp. grouping with marine Synechococcus. Here, we use 18 Prochlorococcus and marine Synechococcus genomes to analyze gene flow within and between these taxa. We introduce embedded quartet scatter plots as a tool to screen for genes whose phylogeny agrees or conflicts with the plurality phylogenetic signal, with accepted taxonomy and naming, with GC content, and with the ecological adaptation to high and low light intensities. We find that most gene families support high-light adapted Prochlorococcus spp. as a monophyletic clade and low-light adapted Prochlorococcus sp. as a paraphyletic group. But we also detect 16 gene families that were transferred between high-light adapted and low-light adapted Prochlorococcus sp. and 495 gene families, including 19 ribosomal proteins, that do not cluster designated Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus strains in the expected manner. To explain the observed data, we propose that frequent gene transfer between marine Synechococcus spp. and low-light adapted Prochlorococcus spp. has created a “highway of gene sharing” (Beiko RG, Harlow TJ, Ragan MA. 2005. Highways of gene sharing in prokaryotes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 102:14332–14337) that tends to erode genus boundaries without erasing the Prochlorococcus-specific ecological adaptations.
PMCID: PMC2817427  PMID: 20333202
marine cyanobacteria; horizontal gene transfer; introgression; quartet decomposition; supertree; genome evolution
4.  Signature proteins for the major clades of Cyanobacteria 
The phylogeny and taxonomy of cyanobacteria is currently poorly understood due to paucity of reliable markers for identification and circumscription of its major clades.
A combination of phylogenomic and protein signature based approaches was used to characterize the major clades of cyanobacteria. Phylogenetic trees were constructed for 44 cyanobacteria based on 44 conserved proteins. In parallel, Blastp searches were carried out on each ORF in the genomes of Synechococcus WH8102, Synechocystis PCC6803, Nostoc PCC7120, Synechococcus JA-3-3Ab, Prochlorococcus MIT9215 and Prochlor. marinus subsp. marinus CCMP1375 to identify proteins that are specific for various main clades of cyanobacteria. These studies have identified 39 proteins that are specific for all (or most) cyanobacteria and large numbers of proteins for other cyanobacterial clades. The identified signature proteins include: (i) 14 proteins for a deep branching clade (Clade A) of Gloebacter violaceus and two diazotrophic Synechococcus strains (JA-3-3Ab and JA2-3-B'a); (ii) 5 proteins that are present in all other cyanobacteria except those from Clade A; (iii) 60 proteins that are specific for a clade (Clade C) consisting of various marine unicellular cyanobacteria (viz. Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus); (iv) 14 and 19 signature proteins that are specific for the Clade C Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus strains, respectively; (v) 67 proteins that are specific for the Low B/A ecotype Prochlorococcus strains, containing lower ratio of chl b/a2 and adapted to growth at high light intensities; (vi) 65 and 8 proteins that are specific for the Nostocales and Chroococcales orders, respectively; and (vii) 22 and 9 proteins that are uniquely shared by various Nostocales and Oscillatoriales orders, or by these two orders and the Chroococcales, respectively. We also describe 3 conserved indels in flavoprotein, heme oxygenase and protochlorophyllide oxidoreductase proteins that are specific for either Clade C cyanobacteria or for various subclades of Prochlorococcus. Many other conserved indels for cyanobacterial clades have been described recently.
These signature proteins and indels provide novel means for circumscription of various cyanobacterial clades in clear molecular terms. Their functional studies should lead to discovery of novel properties that are unique to these groups of cyanobacteria.
PMCID: PMC2823733  PMID: 20100331
5.  The Challenge of Regulation in a Minimal Photoautotroph: Non-Coding RNAs in Prochlorococcus 
PLoS Genetics  2008;4(8):e1000173.
Prochlorococcus, an extremely small cyanobacterium that is very abundant in the world's oceans, has a very streamlined genome. On average, these cells have about 2,000 genes and very few regulatory proteins. The limited capability of regulation is thought to be a result of selection imposed by a relatively stable environment in combination with a very small genome. Furthermore, only ten non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs), which play crucial regulatory roles in all forms of life, have been described in Prochlorococcus. Most strains also lack the RNA chaperone Hfq, raising the question of how important this mode of regulation is for these cells. To explore this question, we examined the transcription of intergenic regions of Prochlorococcus MED4 cells subjected to a number of different stress conditions: changes in light qualities and quantities, phage infection, or phosphorus starvation. Analysis of Affymetrix microarray expression data from intergenic regions revealed 276 novel transcriptional units. Among these were 12 new ncRNAs, 24 antisense RNAs (asRNAs), as well as 113 short mRNAs. Two additional ncRNAs were identified by homology, and all 14 new ncRNAs were independently verified by Northern hybridization and 5′RACE. Unlike its reduced suite of regulatory proteins, the number of ncRNAs relative to genome size in Prochlorococcus is comparable to that found in other bacteria, suggesting that RNA regulators likely play a major role in regulation in this group. Moreover, the ncRNAs are concentrated in previously identified genomic islands, which carry genes of significance to the ecology of this organism, many of which are not of cyanobacterial origin. Expression profiles of some of these ncRNAs suggest involvement in light stress adaptation and/or the response to phage infection consistent with their location in the hypervariable genomic islands.
Author Summary
Prochlorococcus is the most abundant phototroph in the vast, nutrient-poor areas of the ocean. It plays an important role in the ocean carbon cycle, and is a key component of the base of the food web. All cells share a core set of about 1,200 genes, augmented with a variable number of “flexible” genes. Many of the latter are located in genomic islands—hypervariable regions of the genome that encode functions important in differentiating the niches of “ecotypes.” Of major interest is how cells with such a small genome regulate cellular processes, as they lack many of the regulatory proteins commonly found in bacteria. We show here that contrary to the regulatory proteins, ncRNAs are present at levels typical of bacteria, revealing that they might have a disproportional regulatory role in Prochlorococcus—likely an adaptation to the extremely low-nutrient conditions of the open oceans, combined with the constraints of a small genome. Some of the ncRNAs were differentially expressed under stress conditions, and a high number of them were found to be associated with genomic islands, suggesting functional links between these RNAs and the response of Prochlorococcus to particular environmental challenges.
PMCID: PMC2518516  PMID: 18769676
6.  ProPortal: a resource for integrated systems biology of Prochlorococcus and its phage 
Nucleic Acids Research  2011;40(Database issue):D632-D640.
ProPortal ( is a database containing genomic, metagenomic, transcriptomic and field data for the marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus. Our goal is to provide a source of cross-referenced data across multiple scales of biological organization—from the genome to the ecosystem—embracing the full diversity of ecotypic variation within this microbial taxon, its sister group, Synechococcus and phage that infect them. The site currently contains the genomes of 13 Prochlorococcus strains, 11 Synechococcus strains and 28 cyanophage strains that infect one or both groups. Cyanobacterial and cyanophage genes are clustered into orthologous groups that can be accessed by keyword search or through a genome browser. Users can also identify orthologous gene clusters shared by cyanobacterial and cyanophage genomes. Gene expression data for Prochlorococcus ecotypes MED4 and MIT9313 allow users to identify genes that are up or downregulated in response to environmental stressors. In addition, the transcriptome in synchronized cells grown on a 24-h light–dark cycle reveals the choreography of gene expression in cells in a ‘natural’ state. Metagenomic sequences from the Global Ocean Survey from Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus and phage genomes are archived so users can examine the differences between populations from diverse habitats. Finally, an example of cyanobacterial population data from the field is included.
PMCID: PMC3245167  PMID: 22102570
7.  Cyanobacteria of the Genus Prochlorothrix† 
Green cyanobacteria differ from the blue–green cyanobacteria by the possession of a chlorophyll-containing light-harvesting antenna. Three genera of the green cyanobacteria namely Acaryochloris, Prochlorococcus, and Prochloron are unicellular and inhabit marine environments. Prochlorococcus marinus attracts most attention due to its prominent role in marine primary productivity. The fourth genus Prochlorothrix is represented by the filamentous freshwater strains. Unlike the other green cyanobacteria, Prochlorothrix strains are remarkably rare: to date, living isolates have been limited to two European locations. Taking into account fluctuating blooms, morphological resemblance to Planktothrix and Pseudanabaena, and unsuccessful attempts to obtain enrichments of Prochlorothrix, the most successful strategy to search for this cyanobacterium involves PCR with environmental DNA and Prochlorothrix-specific primers. This approach has revealed a broader distribution of Prochlorothrix. Marker genes have been found in at least two additional locations. Despite of the growing evidence for naturally occurring Prochlorothrix, there are only a few cultured strains with one of them (PCC 9006) being claimed to be axenic. In multixenic cultures, Prochlorothrix is accompanied by heterotrophic bacteria indicating a consortium-type association. The genus Prochlorothrix includes two species: P. hollandica and P. scandica based on distinctions in genomic DNA, cell size, temperature optimum, and fatty acid composition of membrane lipids. In this short review the properties of cyanobacteria of the genus Prochlorothrix are described. In addition, the evolutionary scenario for green cyanobacteria is suggested taking into account their possible role in the origin of simple chloroplast.
PMCID: PMC3390582  PMID: 22783229
cyanobacteria; Prochlorothrix; Prochlorophytes
8.  Adaptive Evolution of Phosphorus Metabolism in Prochlorococcus 
mSystems  2016;1(6):e00065-16.
Microbes are known to employ three basic strategies to compete for limiting elemental resources: (i) cell quotas may be adjusted by alterations to cell physiology or by substitution of a more plentiful resource, (ii) stressed cells may synthesize high-affinity transporters, and (iii) cells may access more costly sources from internal stores, by degradation, or by petitioning other microbes. In the case of phosphorus, a limiting resource in vast oceanic regions, the cosmopolitan cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus marinus thrives by adopting all three strategies and a fourth, previously unknown strategy. By generating a detailed model of its metabolism, we found that strain MED4 has evolved a way to reduce its dependence on phosphate by minimizing the number of enzymes involved in phosphate transformations, despite the stringency of nearly half of its metabolic genes being essential for survival. Relieving phosphorus limitation, both physiologically and throughout intermediate metabolism, substantially improves phosphorus-specific growth rates.
Inorganic phosphorus is scarce in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where the high-light-adapted ecotype HLI of the marine picocyanobacterium Prochlorococcus marinus thrives. Physiological and regulatory control of phosphorus acquisition and partitioning has been observed in HLI both in culture and in the field; however, the optimization of phosphorus metabolism and associated gains for its phosphorus-limited-growth (PLG) phenotype have not been studied. Here, we reconstructed a genome-scale metabolic network of the HLI axenic strain MED4 (iJC568), consisting of 568 metabolic genes in relation to 794 reactions involving 680 metabolites distributed in 6 subcellular locations. iJC568 was used to quantify metabolic fluxes under PLG conditions, and we observed a close correspondence between experimental and computed fluxes. We found that MED4 has minimized its dependence on intracellular phosphate, not only through drastic depletion of phosphorus-containing biomass components but also through network-wide reductions in phosphate-reaction participation and the loss of a key enzyme, succinate dehydrogenase. These alterations occur despite the stringency of having relatively few pathway redundancies and an extremely high proportion of essential metabolic genes (47%; defined as the percentage of lethal in silico gene knockouts). These strategies are examples of nutrient-controlled adaptive evolution and confer a dramatic growth rate advantage to MED4 in phosphorus-limited regions.
IMPORTANCE Microbes are known to employ three basic strategies to compete for limiting elemental resources: (i) cell quotas may be adjusted by alterations to cell physiology or by substitution of a more plentiful resource, (ii) stressed cells may synthesize high-affinity transporters, and (iii) cells may access more costly sources from internal stores, by degradation, or by petitioning other microbes. In the case of phosphorus, a limiting resource in vast oceanic regions, the cosmopolitan cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus marinus thrives by adopting all three strategies and a fourth, previously unknown strategy. By generating a detailed model of its metabolism, we found that strain MED4 has evolved a way to reduce its dependence on phosphate by minimizing the number of enzymes involved in phosphate transformations, despite the stringency of nearly half of its metabolic genes being essential for survival. Relieving phosphorus limitation, both physiologically and throughout intermediate metabolism, substantially improves phosphorus-specific growth rates.
PMCID: PMC5111396  PMID: 27868089
Prochlorococcus; evolution of metabolic networks; flux balance analysis; metabolic modeling; phosphorus metabolism; succinate dehydrogenase
9.  Modeling Selective Pressures on Phytoplankton in the Global Ocean 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(3):e9569.
Our view of marine microbes is transforming, as culture-independent methods facilitate rapid characterization of microbial diversity. It is difficult to assimilate this information into our understanding of marine microbe ecology and evolution, because their distributions, traits, and genomes are shaped by forces that are complex and dynamic. Here we incorporate diverse forces—physical, biogeochemical, ecological, and mutational—into a global ocean model to study selective pressures on a simple trait in a widely distributed lineage of picophytoplankton: the nitrogen use abilities of Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus cyanobacteria. Some Prochlorococcus ecotypes have lost the ability to use nitrate, whereas their close relatives, marine Synechococcus, typically retain it. We impose mutations for the loss of nitrogen use abilities in modeled picophytoplankton, and ask: in which parts of the ocean are mutants most disadvantaged by losing the ability to use nitrate, and in which parts are they least disadvantaged? Our model predicts that this selective disadvantage is smallest for picophytoplankton that live in tropical regions where Prochlorococcus are abundant in the real ocean. Conversely, the selective disadvantage of losing the ability to use nitrate is larger for modeled picophytoplankton that live at higher latitudes, where Synechococcus are abundant. In regions where we expect Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus populations to cycle seasonally in the real ocean, we find that model ecotypes with seasonal population dynamics similar to Prochlorococcus are less disadvantaged by losing the ability to use nitrate than model ecotypes with seasonal population dynamics similar to Synechococcus. The model predictions for the selective advantage associated with nitrate use are broadly consistent with the distribution of this ability among marine picocyanobacteria, and at finer scales, can provide insights into interactions between temporally varying ocean processes and selective pressures that may be difficult or impossible to study by other means. More generally, and perhaps more importantly, this study introduces an approach for testing hypotheses about the processes that underlie genetic variation among marine microbes, embedded in the dynamic physical, chemical, and biological forces that generate and shape this diversity.
PMCID: PMC2835739  PMID: 20224766
10.  Genomic potential for nitrogen assimilation in uncultivated members of Prochlorococcus from an anoxic marine zone 
The ISME Journal  2015;9(5):1264-1267.
Cyanobacteria of the genus Prochlorococcus are the most abundant photosynthetic marine organisms and key factors in the global carbon cycle. The understanding of their distribution and ecological importance in oligotrophic tropical and subtropical waters, and their differentiation into distinct ecotypes, is based on genetic and physiological information from several isolates. Currently, all available Prochlorococcus genomes show their incapacity for nitrate utilization. However, environmental sequence data suggest that some uncultivated lineages may have acquired this capacity. Here we report that uncultivated low-light-adapted Prochlorococcus from the nutrient-rich, low-light, anoxic marine zone (AMZ) of the eastern tropical South Pacific have the genetic potential for nitrate uptake and assimilation. All genes involved in this trait were found syntenic with those present in marine Synechococcus. Genomic and phylogenetic analyses also suggest that these genes have not been aquired recently, but perhaps were retained from a common ancestor, highlighting the basal characteristics of the AMZ lineages within Prochlorococcus.
PMCID: PMC4409168  PMID: 25700337
11.  Physiology and evolution of nitrate acquisition in Prochlorococcus 
The ISME Journal  2014;9(5):1195-1207.
Prochlorococcus is the numerically dominant phototroph in the oligotrophic subtropical ocean and carries out a significant fraction of marine primary productivity. Although field studies have provided evidence for nitrate uptake by Prochlorococcus, little is known about this trait because axenic cultures capable of growth on nitrate have not been available. Additionally, all previously sequenced genomes lacked the genes necessary for nitrate assimilation. Here we introduce three Prochlorococcus strains capable of growth on nitrate and analyze their physiology and genome architecture. We show that the growth of high-light (HL) adapted strains on nitrate is ∼17% slower than their growth on ammonium. By analyzing 41 Prochlorococcus genomes, we find that genes for nitrate assimilation have been gained multiple times during the evolution of this group, and can be found in at least three lineages. In low-light adapted strains, nitrate assimilation genes are located in the same genomic context as in marine Synechococcus. These genes are located elsewhere in HL adapted strains and may often exist as a stable genetic acquisition as suggested by the striking degree of similarity in the order, phylogeny and location of these genes in one HL adapted strain and a consensus assembly of environmental Prochlorococcus metagenome sequences. In another HL adapted strain, nitrate utilization genes may have been independently acquired as indicated by adjacent phage mobility elements; these genes are also duplicated with each copy detected in separate genomic islands. These results provide direct evidence for nitrate utilization by Prochlorococcus and illuminate the complex evolutionary history of this trait.
PMCID: PMC4409163  PMID: 25350156
12.  Prochlorococcus, a Marine Photosynthetic Prokaryote of Global Significance 
The minute photosynthetic prokaryote Prochlorococcus, which was discovered about 10 years ago, has proven exceptional from several standpoints. Its tiny size (0.5 to 0.7 μm in diameter) makes it the smallest known photosynthetic organism. Its ubiquity within the 40°S to 40°N latitudinal band of oceans and its occurrence at high density from the surface down to depths of 200 m make it presumably the most abundant photosynthetic organism on Earth. Prochlorococcus typically divides once a day in the subsurface layer of oligotrophic areas, where it dominates the photosynthetic biomass. It also possesses a remarkable pigment complement which includes divinyl derivatives of chlorophyll a (Chl a) and Chl b, the so-called Chl a2 and Chl b2, and, in some strains, small amounts of a new type of phycoerythrin. Phylogenetically, Prochlorococcus has also proven fascinating. Recent studies suggest that it evolved from an ancestral cyanobacterium by reducing its cell and genome sizes and by recruiting a protein originally synthesized under conditions of iron depletion to build a reduced antenna system as a replacement for large phycobilisomes. Environmental constraints clearly played a predominant role in Prochlorococcus evolution. Its tiny size is an advantage for its adaptation to nutrient-deprived environments. Furthermore, genetically distinct ecotypes, with different antenna systems and ecophysiological characteristics, are present at depth and in surface waters. This vertical species variation has allowed Prochlorococcus to adapt to the natural light gradient occurring in the upper layer of oceans. The present review critically assesses the basic knowledge acquired about Prochlorococcus both in the ocean and in the laboratory.
PMCID: PMC98958  PMID: 10066832
13.  Comparative transcriptomics of two environmentally relevant cyanobacteria reveals unexpected transcriptome diversity 
The ISME Journal  2014;8(10):2056-2068.
Prochlorococcus is a genus of abundant and ecologically important marine cyanobacteria. Here, we present a comprehensive comparison of the structure and composition of the transcriptomes of two Prochlorococcus strains, which, despite their similarities, have adapted their gene pool to specific environmental constraints. We present genome-wide maps of transcriptional start sites (TSS) for both organisms, which are representatives of the two most diverse clades within the two major ecotypes adapted to high- and low-light conditions, respectively. Our data suggest antisense transcription for three-quarters of all genes, which is substantially more than that observed in other bacteria. We discovered hundreds of TSS within genes, most notably within 16 of the 29 prochlorosin genes, in strain MIT9313. A direct comparison revealed very little conservation in the location of TSS and the nature of non-coding transcripts between both strains. We detected extremely short 5′ untranslated regions with a median length of only 27 and 29 nt for MED4 and MIT9313, respectively, and for 8% of all protein-coding genes the median distance to the start codon is only 10 nt or even shorter. These findings and the absence of an obvious Shine–Dalgarno motif suggest that leaderless translation and ribosomal protein S1-dependent translation constitute alternative mechanisms for translation initiation in Prochlorococcus. We conclude that genome-wide antisense transcription is a major component of the transcriptional output from these relatively small genomes and that a hitherto unrecognized high degree of complexity and variability of gene expression exists in their transcriptional architecture.
PMCID: PMC4184020  PMID: 24739626
antisense RNA; cyanobacteria; dRNA-seq; Prochlorococcus; transcriptomics; prochlorosin
14.  Strong Genome-Wide Selection Early in the Evolution of Prochlorococcus Resulted in a Reduced Genome through the Loss of a Large Number of Small Effect Genes 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(3):e88837.
The smallest genomes of any photosynthetic organisms are found in a group of free-living marine cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus. To determine the underlying evolutionary mechanisms, we developed a new method to reconstruct the steps leading to the Prochlorococcus genome reduction using 12 Prochlorococcus and 6 marine Synechococcus genomes. Our results reveal that small genome sizes within Prochlorococcus were largely determined shortly after the split of Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus (an early big shrink) and thus for the first time decouple the genome reduction from Prochlorococcus diversification. A maximum likelihood approach was then used to estimate changes of nucleotide substitution rate and selection strength along Prochlorococcus evolution in a phylogenetic framework. Strong genome wide purifying selection was associated with the loss of many genes in the early evolutionary stage. The deleted genes were distributed around the genome, participated in many different functional categories and in general had been under relaxed selection pressure. We propose that shortly after Prochlorococcus diverged from its common ancestor with marine Synechococcus, its population size increased quickly thus increasing efficacy of selection. Due to limited nutrients and a relatively constant environment, selection favored a streamlined genome for maximum economy. Strong genome wide selection subsequently caused the loss of genes with small functional effect including the loss of some DNA repair genes. In summary, genome reduction in Prochlorococcus resulted in genome features that are similar to symbiotic bacteria and pathogens, however, the small genome sizes resulted from an increase in genome wide selection rather than a consequence of a reduced ecological niche or relaxed selection due to genetic drift.
PMCID: PMC3940434  PMID: 24594762
15.  Accelerated evolution associated with genome reduction in a free-living prokaryote 
Genome Biology  2005;6(2):R14.
Prochlorococcus sp. are marine bacteria with very small genomes. The mechanisms by which these reduced genomes have evolved appears, however, to be distinct from those that have led to small genome size in intracellular bacteria.
Three complete genomes of Prochlorococcus species, the smallest and most abundant photosynthetic organism in the ocean, have recently been published. Comparative genome analyses reveal that genome shrinkage has occurred within this genus, associated with a sharp reduction in G+C content. As all examples of genome reduction characterized so far have been restricted to endosymbionts or pathogens, with a host-dependent lifestyle, the observed genome reduction in Prochlorococcus is the first documented example of such a process in a free-living organism.
Our results clearly indicate that genome reduction has been accompanied by an increased rate of protein evolution in P. marinus SS120 that is even more pronounced in P. marinus MED4. This acceleration has affected every functional category of protein-coding genes. In contrast, the 16S rRNA gene seems to have evolved clock-like in this genus. We observed that MED4 and SS120 have lost several DNA-repair genes, the absence of which could be related to the mutational bias and the acceleration of amino-acid substitution.
We have examined the evolutionary mechanisms involved in this process, which are different from those known from host-dependent organisms. Indeed, most substitutions that have occurred in Prochlorococcus have to be selectively neutral, as the large size of populations imposes low genetic drift and strong purifying selection. We assume that the major driving force behind genome reduction within the Prochlorococcus radiation has been a selective process favoring the adaptation of this organism to its environment. A scenario is proposed for genome evolution in this genus.
PMCID: PMC551534  PMID: 15693943
16.  Comparative quantitative proteomics of prochlorococcus ecotypes to a decrease in environmental phosphate concentrations 
Aquatic Biosystems  2012;8:7.
The well-lit surface waters of oligotrophic gyres significantly contribute to global primary production. Marine cyanobacteria of the genus Prochlorococcus are a major fraction of photosynthetic organisms within these areas. Labile phosphate is considered a limiting nutrient in some oligotrophic regions such as the Caribbean Sea, and as such it is crucial to understand the physiological response of primary producers such as Prochlorococcus to fluctuations in the availability of this critical nutrient.
Prochlorococcus strains representing both high light (HL) (MIT9312) and low light (LL) (NATL2A and SS120) ecotypes were grown identically in phosphate depleted media (10 μM Pi). The three strains displayed marked differences in cellular protein expression, as determined by high throughput large scale quantitative proteomic analysis. The only strain to demonstrate a significantly different growth rate under reduced phosphate conditions was MIT9312. Additionally, there was a significant increase in phosphate-related proteins such as PhoE (> 15 fold increase) and a depression of the Rubisco protein RbcL abundance in this strain, whereas there appeared to be no significant change within the LL strain SS120.
This differential response between ecotypes highlights the relative importance of phosphate availability to each strain and from these results we draw the conclusion that the expression of phosphate acquisition mechanisms are activated at strain specific phosphate concentrations.
PMCID: PMC3349580  PMID: 22480396
Prochlorococcus; PstS; PhoA; PhoE; Growth; Phosphate
17.  Ecological Genomics of Marine Picocyanobacteria†  
Summary: Marine picocyanobacteria of the genera Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus numerically dominate the picophytoplankton of the world ocean, making a key contribution to global primary production. Prochlorococcus was isolated around 20 years ago and is probably the most abundant photosynthetic organism on Earth. The genus comprises specific ecotypes which are phylogenetically distinct and differ markedly in their photophysiology, allowing growth over a broad range of light and nutrient conditions within the 45°N to 40°S latitudinal belt that they occupy. Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus are closely related, together forming a discrete picophytoplankton clade, but are distinguishable by their possession of dissimilar light-harvesting apparatuses and differences in cell size and elemental composition. Synechococcus strains have a ubiquitous oceanic distribution compared to that of Prochlorococcus strains and are characterized by phylogenetically discrete lineages with a wide range of pigmentation. In this review, we put our current knowledge of marine picocyanobacterial genomics into an environmental context and present previously unpublished genomic information arising from extensive genomic comparisons in order to provide insights into the adaptations of these marine microbes to their environment and how they are reflected at the genomic level.
PMCID: PMC2698417  PMID: 19487728
18.  Horizontal transfer of a eukaryotic plastid-targeted protein gene to cyanobacteria 
BMC Biology  2007;5:26.
Horizontal or lateral transfer of genetic material between distantly related prokaryotes has been shown to play a major role in the evolution of bacterial and archaeal genomes, but exchange of genes between prokaryotes and eukaryotes is not as well understood. In particular, gene flow from eukaryotes to prokaryotes is rarely documented with strong support, which is unusual since prokaryotic genomes appear to readily accept foreign genes.
Here, we show that abundant marine cyanobacteria in the related genera Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus acquired a key Calvin cycle/glycolytic enzyme from a eukaryote. Two non-homologous forms of fructose bisphosphate aldolase (FBA) are characteristic of eukaryotes and prokaryotes respectively. However, a eukaryotic gene has been inserted immediately upstream of the ancestral prokaryotic gene in several strains (ecotypes) of Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus. In one lineage this new gene has replaced the ancestral gene altogether. The eukaryotic gene is most closely related to the plastid-targeted FBA from red algae. This eukaryotic-type FBA once replaced the plastid/cyanobacterial type in photosynthetic eukaryotes, hinting at a possible functional advantage in Calvin cycle reactions. The strains that now possess this eukaryotic FBA are scattered across the tree of Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus, perhaps because the gene has been transferred multiple times among cyanobacteria, or more likely because it has been selectively retained only in certain lineages.
A gene for plastid-targeted FBA has been transferred from red algae to cyanobacteria, where it has inserted itself beside its non-homologous, functional analogue. Its current distribution in Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus is punctate, suggesting a complex history since its introduction to this group.
PMCID: PMC1919352  PMID: 17584924
19.  Culture Isolation and Culture-Independent Clone Libraries Reveal New Marine Synechococcus Ecotypes with Distinctive Light and N Physiologies▿  
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2006;72(11):7193-7204.
Marine microbial communities often contain multiple closely related phylogenetic clades, but in many cases, it is still unclear what physiological traits differentiate these putative ecotypes. The numerically abundant marine cyanobacterium Synechococcus can be divided into at least 14 clades. In order to better understand ecotype differentiation in this genus, we assessed the diversity of a Synechococcus community from a well-mixed water column in the Sargasso Sea during March 2002, a time of year when this genus typically reaches its annual peak in abundance. Diversity was estimated from water sampled at three depths (approximately 5, 70, and 170 m) using both culture isolation and construction of cyanobacterial 16S-23S rRNA internal transcribed sequence clone libraries. Clonal isolates were obtained by enrichment with ammonium, nitrite, or nitrate as the sole N source, followed by pour plating. Each method sampled the in situ diversity differently. The combined methods revealed a total of seven Synechococcus phylotypes including two new putative ecotypes, labeled XV and XVI. Although most other isolates grow on nitrate, clade XV exhibited a reduced efficiency in nitrate utilization, and both clade XV and XVI are capable of chromatic adaptation, demonstrating that this trait is more widely distributed among Synechococcus strains than previously known. Thus, as in its sister genus Prochlorococcus, light and nitrogen utilization are important factors in ecotype differentiation in the marine Synechococcus lineage.
PMCID: PMC1636174  PMID: 16936060
20.  Dependence of the Cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus on Hydrogen Peroxide Scavenging Microbes for Growth at the Ocean's Surface 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(2):e16805.
The phytoplankton community in the oligotrophic open ocean is numerically dominated by the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus, accounting for approximately half of all photosynthesis. In the illuminated euphotic zone where Prochlorococcus grows, reactive oxygen species are continuously generated via photochemical reactions with dissolved organic matter. However, Prochlorococcus genomes lack catalase and additional protective mechanisms common in other aerobes, and this genus is highly susceptible to oxidative damage from hydrogen peroxide (HOOH). In this study we showed that the extant microbial community plays a vital, previously unrecognized role in cross-protecting Prochlorococcus from oxidative damage in the surface mixed layer of the oligotrophic ocean. Microbes are the primary HOOH sink in marine systems, and in the absence of the microbial community, surface waters in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean accumulated HOOH to concentrations that were lethal for Prochlorococcus cultures. In laboratory experiments with the marine heterotroph Alteromonas sp., serving as a proxy for the natural community of HOOH-degrading microbes, bacterial depletion of HOOH from the extracellular milieu prevented oxidative damage to the cell envelope and photosystems of co-cultured Prochlorococcus, and facilitated the growth of Prochlorococcus at ecologically-relevant cell concentrations. Curiously, the more recently evolved lineages of Prochlorococcus that exploit the surface mixed layer niche were also the most sensitive to HOOH. The genomic streamlining of these evolved lineages during adaptation to the high-light exposed upper euphotic zone thus appears to be coincident with an acquired dependency on the extant HOOH-consuming community. These results underscore the importance of (indirect) biotic interactions in establishing niche boundaries, and highlight the impacts that community-level responses to stress may have in the ecological and evolutionary outcomes for co-existing species.
PMCID: PMC3033426  PMID: 21304826
21.  Ultraviolet stress delays chromosome replication in light/dark synchronized cells of the marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus marinus PCC9511 
BMC Microbiology  2010;10:204.
The marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus is very abundant in warm, nutrient-poor oceanic areas. The upper mixed layer of oceans is populated by high light-adapted Prochlorococcus ecotypes, which despite their tiny genome (~1.7 Mb) seem to have developed efficient strategies to cope with stressful levels of photosynthetically active and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. At a molecular level, little is known yet about how such minimalist microorganisms manage to sustain high growth rates and avoid potentially detrimental, UV-induced mutations to their DNA. To address this question, we studied the cell cycle dynamics of P. marinus PCC9511 cells grown under high fluxes of visible light in the presence or absence of UV radiation. Near natural light-dark cycles of both light sources were obtained using a custom-designed illumination system (cyclostat). Expression patterns of key DNA synthesis and repair, cell division, and clock genes were analyzed in order to decipher molecular mechanisms of adaptation to UV radiation.
The cell cycle of P. marinus PCC9511 was strongly synchronized by the day-night cycle. The most conspicuous response of cells to UV radiation was a delay in chromosome replication, with a peak of DNA synthesis shifted about 2 h into the dark period. This delay was seemingly linked to a strong downregulation of genes governing DNA replication (dnaA) and cell division (ftsZ, sepF), whereas most genes involved in DNA repair (such as recA, phrA, uvrA, ruvC, umuC) were already activated under high visible light and their expression levels were only slightly affected by additional UV exposure.
Prochlorococcus cells modified the timing of the S phase in response to UV exposure, therefore reducing the risk that mutations would occur during this particularly sensitive stage of the cell cycle. We identified several possible explanations for the observed timeshift. Among these, the sharp decrease in transcript levels of the dnaA gene, encoding the DNA replication initiator protein, is sufficient by itself to explain this response, since DNA synthesis starts only when the cellular concentration of DnaA reaches a critical threshold. However, the observed response likely results from a more complex combination of UV-altered biological processes.
PMCID: PMC2921402  PMID: 20670397
22.  Novel lineages of Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus in the global oceans 
The ISME Journal  2011;6(2):285-297.
Picocyanobacteria represented by Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus have an important role in oceanic carbon fixation and nutrient cycling. In this study, we compared the community composition of picocyanobacteria from diverse marine ecosystems ranging from estuary to open oceans, tropical to polar oceans and surface to deep water, based on the sequences of 16S-23S rRNA internal transcribed spacer (ITS). A total of 1339 ITS sequences recovered from 20 samples unveiled diverse and several previously unknown clades of Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus. Six high-light (HL)-adapted Prochlorococcus clades were identified, among which clade HLVI had not been described previously. Prochlorococcus clades HLIII, HLIV and HLV, detected in the Equatorial Pacific samples, could be related to the HNLC clades recently found in the high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll (HNLC), iron-depleted tropical oceans. At least four novel Synechococcus clades (out of six clades in total) in subcluster 5.3 were found in subtropical open oceans and the South China Sea. A niche partitioning with depth was observed in the Synechococcus subcluster 5.3. Members of Synechococcus subcluster 5.2 were dominant in the high-latitude waters (northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea), suggesting a possible cold-adaptation of some marine Synechococcus in this subcluster. A distinct shift of the picocyanobacterial community was observed from the Bering Sea to the Chukchi Sea, which reflected the change of water temperature. Our study demonstrates that oceanic systems contain a large pool of diverse picocyanobacteria, and further suggest that new genotypes or ecotypes of picocyanobacteria will continue to emerge, as microbial consortia are explored with advanced sequencing technology.
PMCID: PMC3260499  PMID: 21955990
cyanobacteria; Prochlorococcus; Synechococcus; diversity; global ocean; 16S-23S rRNA ITS
23.  Quantitative and Functional Characterization of the Hyper-Conserved Protein of Prochlorococcus and Marine Synechococcus 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(10):e109327.
A large fraction of any bacterial genome consists of hypothetical protein-coding open reading frames (ORFs). While most of these ORFs are present only in one or a few sequenced genomes, a few are conserved, often across large phylogenetic distances. Such conservation provides clues to likely uncharacterized cellular functions that need to be elucidated. Marine cyanobacteria from the Prochlorococcus/marine Synechococcus clade are dominant bacteria in oceanic waters and are significant contributors to global primary production. A Hyper Conserved Protein (PSHCP) of unknown function is 100% conserved at the amino acid level in genomes of Prochlorococcus/marine Synechococcus, but lacks homologs outside of this clade. In this study we investigated Prochlorococcus marinus strains MED4 and MIT 9313 and Synechococcus sp. strain WH 8102 for the transcription of the PSHCP gene using RT-Q-PCR, for the presence of the protein product through quantitative immunoblotting, and for the protein's binding partners in a pull down assay. Significant transcription of the gene was detected in all strains. The PSHCP protein content varied between 8±1 fmol and 26±9 fmol per ug total protein, depending on the strain. The 50 S ribosomal protein L2, the Photosystem I protein PsaD and the Ycf48-like protein were found associated with the PSHCP protein in all strains and not appreciably or at all in control experiments. We hypothesize that PSHCP is a protein associated with the ribosome, and is possibly involved in photosystem assembly.
PMCID: PMC4215834  PMID: 25360678
24.  The P-SSP7 Cyanophage Has a Linear Genome with Direct Terminal Repeats 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e36710.
P-SSP7 is a T7-like phage that infects the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus MED4. MED4 is a member of the high-light-adapted Prochlorococcus ecotypes that are abundant in the surface oceans and contribute significantly to primary production. P-SSP7 has become a model system for the investigation of T7-like phages that infect Prochlorococcus. It was classified as T7-like based on genome content and organization. However, because its genome assembled as a circular molecule, it was thought to be circularly permuted and to lack the direct terminal repeats found in other T7-like phages. Here we sequenced the ends of the P-SSP7 genome and found that the genome map is linear and contains a 206 bp repeat at both genome ends. Furthermore, we found that a 728 bp region of the genome originally placed downstream of the last ORF is actually located upstream of the first ORF on the genome map. These findings suggest that P-SSP7 is likely to use the direct terminal repeats for genome replication and packaging in a similar manner to other T7-like phages. Moreover, these results highlight the importance of experimentally verifying the ends of phage genomes, and will facilitate the use of P-SSP7 as a model for the correct assembly and end determination of the many T7-like phages isolated from the marine environment that are currently being sequenced.
PMCID: PMC3350473  PMID: 22606283
25.  The RUBISCO to Photosystem II Ratio Limits the Maximum Photosynthetic Rate in Picocyanobacteria 
Life  2015;5(1):403-417.
Marine Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus are picocyanobacteria predominating in subtropical, oligotrophic marine environments, a niche predicted to expand with climate change. When grown under common low light conditions Synechococcus WH 8102 and Prochlorococcus MED 4 show similar Cytochrome b6f and Photosystem I contents normalized to Photosystem II content, while Prochlorococcus MIT 9313 has twice the Cytochrome b6f content and four times the Photosystem I content of the other strains. Interestingly, the Prochlorococcus strains contain only one third to one half of the RUBISCO catalytic subunits compared to the marine Synechococcus strain. The maximum Photosystem II electron transport rates were similar for the two Prochlorococcus strains but higher for the marine Synechococcus strain. Photosystem II electron transport capacity is highly correlated to the molar ratio of RUBISCO active sites to Photosystem II but not to the ratio of cytochrome b6f to Photosystem II, nor to the ratio of Photosystem I: Photosystem II. Thus, the catalytic capacity for the rate-limiting step of carbon fixation, the ultimate electron sink, appears to limit electron transport rates. The high abundance of Cytochrome b6f and Photosystem I in MIT 9313, combined with the slower flow of electrons away from Photosystem II and the relatively low level of RUBISCO, are consistent with cyclic electron flow around Photosystem I in this strain.
PMCID: PMC4390859  PMID: 25658887
Prochlorococcus; Synechococcus; Photosystem I: Photosystem II: Cytochrome b6f; RUBISCO

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