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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.  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
3.  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
4.  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
5.  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
6.  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
7.  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
8.  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
9.  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
10.  Genome Reduction by Deletion of Paralogs in the Marine Cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus 
Molecular Biology and Evolution  2011;28(10):2751-2760.
Several isolates of the marine cyanobacterial genus Prochlorococcus have smaller genome sizes than those of the closely related genus Synechococcus. In order to test whether loss of protein-coding genes has contributed to genome size reduction in Prochlorococcus, we reconstructed events of gene family evolution over a strongly supported phylogeny of 12 Prochlorococcus genomes and 9 Synechococcus genomes. Significantly, more events both of loss of paralogs within gene families and of loss of entire gene families occurred in Prochlorococcus than in Synechococcus. The number of nonancestral gene families in genomes of both genera was positively correlated with the extent of genomic islands (GIs), consistent with the hypothesis that horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is associated with GIs. However, even when only isolates with comparable extents of GIs were compared, significantly more events of gene family loss and of paralog loss were seen in Prochlorococcus than in Synechococcus, implying that HGT is not the primary reason for the genome size difference between the two genera.
PMCID: PMC3203624  PMID: 21531921
genome size reduction; gene content evolution; marine cyanobacteria; Prochlorococcus
11.  Phylogenetic Diversity of Sequences of Cyanophage Photosynthetic Gene psbA in Marine and Freshwaters▿ †  
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2008;74(17):5317-5324.
Many cyanophage isolates which infect the marine cyanobacteria Synechococcus spp. and Prochlorococcus spp. contain a gene homologous to psbA, which codes for the D1 protein involved in photosynthesis. In the present study, cyanophage psbA gene fragments were readily amplified from freshwater and marine samples, confirming their widespread occurrence in aquatic communities. Phylogenetic analyses demonstrated that sequences from freshwaters have an evolutionary history that is distinct from that of their marine counterparts. Similarly, sequences from cyanophages infecting Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus spp. were readily discriminated, as were sequences from podoviruses and myoviruses. Viral psbA sequences from the same geographic origins clustered within different clades. For example, cyanophage psbA sequences from the Arctic Ocean fell within the Synechococcus as well as Prochlorococcus phage groups. Moreover, as psbA sequences are not confined to a single family of phages, they provide an additional genetic marker that can be used to explore the diversity and evolutionary history of cyanophages in aquatic environments.
PMCID: PMC2546643  PMID: 18586962
12.  Biogeography of Photosynthetic Light-Harvesting Genes in Marine Phytoplankton 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(2):e4601.
Photosynthetic light-harvesting proteins are the mechanism by which energy enters the marine ecosystem. The dominant prokaryotic photoautotrophs are the cyanobacterial genera Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus that are defined by two distinct light-harvesting systems, chlorophyll-bound protein complexes or phycobilin-bound protein complexes, respectively. Here, we use the Global Ocean Sampling (GOS) Project as a unique and powerful tool to analyze the environmental diversity of photosynthetic light-harvesting genes in relation to available metadata including geographical location and physical and chemical environmental parameters.
All light-harvesting gene fragments and their metadata were obtained from the GOS database, aligned using ClustalX and classified phylogenetically. Each sequence has a name indicative of its geographic location; subsequent biogeographical analysis was performed by correlating light-harvesting gene budgets for each GOS station with surface chlorophyll concentration.
Using the GOS data, we have mapped the biogeography of light-harvesting genes in marine cyanobacteria on ocean-basin scales and show that an environmental gradient exists in which chlorophyll concentration is correlated to diversity of light-harvesting systems. Three functionally distinct types of light-harvesting genes are defined: (1) the phycobilisome (PBS) genes of Synechococcus; (2) the pcb genes of Prochlorococcus; and (3) the iron-stress-induced (isiA) genes present in some marine Synechococcus. At low chlorophyll concentrations, where nutrients are limited, the Pcb-type light-harvesting system shows greater genetic diversity; whereas at high chlorophyll concentrations, where nutrients are abundant, the PBS-type light-harvesting system shows higher genetic diversity. We interpret this as an environmental selection of specific photosynthetic strategy. Importantly, the unique light-harvesting system isiA is found in the iron-limited, high-nutrient low-chlorophyll region of the equatorial Pacific. This observation demonstrates the ecological importance of isiA genes in enabling marine Synechococcus to acclimate to iron limitation and suggests that the presence of this gene can be a natural biomarker for iron limitation in oceanic environments.
PMCID: PMC2644788  PMID: 19240807
13.  Three Prochlorococcus Cyanophage Genomes: Signature Features and Ecological Interpretations 
PLoS Biology  2005;3(5):e144.
The oceanic cyanobacteria Prochlorococcus are globally important, ecologically diverse primary producers. It is thought that their viruses (phages) mediate population sizes and affect the evolutionary trajectories of their hosts. Here we present an analysis of genomes from three Prochlorococcus phages: a podovirus and two myoviruses. The morphology, overall genome features, and gene content of these phages suggest that they are quite similar to T7-like (P-SSP7) and T4-like (P-SSM2 and P-SSM4) phages. Using the existing phage taxonomic framework as a guideline, we examined genome sequences to establish “core” genes for each phage group. We found the podovirus contained 15 of 26 core T7-like genes and the two myoviruses contained 43 and 42 of 75 core T4-like genes. In addition to these core genes, each genome contains a significant number of “cyanobacterial” genes, i.e., genes with significant best BLAST hits to genes found in cyanobacteria. Some of these, we speculate, represent “signature” cyanophage genes. For example, all three phage genomes contain photosynthetic genes (psbA, hliP) that are thought to help maintain host photosynthetic activity during infection, as well as an aldolase family gene (talC) that could facilitate alternative routes of carbon metabolism during infection. The podovirus genome also contains an integrase gene (int) and other features that suggest it is capable of integrating into its host. If indeed it is, this would be unprecedented among cultured T7-like phages or marine cyanophages and would have significant evolutionary and ecological implications for phage and host. Further, both myoviruses contain phosphate-inducible genes (phoH and pstS) that are likely to be important for phage and host responses to phosphate stress, a commonly limiting nutrient in marine systems. Thus, these marine cyanophages appear to be variations of two well-known phages—T7 and T4—but contain genes that, if functional, reflect adaptations for infection of photosynthetic hosts in low-nutrient oceanic environments.
An analysis of the genome sequences of three phages capable of infecting marine unicellular cyanobacteria Prochlorococcus reveals they are genetically complex with intriguing adaptations related to their oceanic environment
PMCID: PMC1079782  PMID: 15828858
14.  Ecology of uncultured Prochlorococcus clades revealed through single-cell genomics and biogeographic analysis 
The ISME Journal  2012;7(1):184-198.
Prochlorococcus is the numerically dominant photosynthetic organism throughout much of the world's oceans, yet little is known about the ecology and genetic diversity of populations inhabiting tropical waters. To help close this gap, we examined natural Prochlorococcus communities in the tropical Pacific Ocean using a single-cell whole-genome amplification and sequencing. Analysis of the gene content of just 10 single cells from these waters added 394 new genes to the Prochlorococcus pan-genome—that is, genes never before seen in a Prochlorococcus cell. Analysis of marker genes, including the ribosomal internal transcribed sequence, from dozens of individual cells revealed several representatives from two uncultivated clades of Prochlorococcus previously identified as HNLC1 and HNLC2. While the HNLC clades can dominate Prochlorococcus communities under certain conditions, their overall geographic distribution was highly restricted compared with other clades of Prochlorococcus. In the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, these clades were only found in warm waters with low Fe and high inorganic P levels. Genomic analysis suggests that at least one of these clades thrives in low Fe environments by scavenging organic-bound Fe, a process previously unknown in Prochlorococcus. Furthermore, the capacity to utilize organic-bound Fe appears to have been acquired horizontally and may be exchanged among other clades of Prochlorococcus. Finally, one of the single Prochlorococcus cells sequenced contained a partial genome of what appears to be a prophage integrated into the genome.
PMCID: PMC3526172  PMID: 22895163
HNLC; Prochlorococcus; siderophore
15.  Cell Cycle Regulation by Light in Prochlorococcus Strains 
The effect of light on the synchronization of cell cycling was investigated in several strains of the oceanic photosynthetic prokaryote Prochlorococcus using flow cytometry. When exposed to a light-dark (L-D) cycle with an irradiance of 25 μmol of quanta · m−2 s−1, the low-light-adapted strain SS 120 appeared to be better synchronized than the high-light-adapted strain PCC 9511. Submitting L-D-entrained populations to shifts (advances or delays) in the timing of the “light on” signal translated to corresponding shifts in the initiation of the S phase, suggesting that this signal is a key parameter for the synchronization of population cell cycles. Cultures that were shifted from an L-D cycle to continuous irradiance showed persistent diel oscillations of flow-cytometric signals (light scatter and chlorophyll fluorescence) but with significantly reduced amplitudes and a phase shift. Complete darkness arrested most of the cells in the G1 phase of the cell cycle, indicating that light is required to trigger the initiation of DNA replication and cell division. However, some cells also arrested in the S phase, suggesting that cell cycle controls in Prochlorococcus spp. are not as strict as in marine Synechococcus spp. Shifting Prochlorococcus cells from low to high irradiance translated quasi-instantaneously into an increase of cells in both the S and G2 phases of the cell cycle and then into faster growth, whereas the inverse shift induced rapid slowing of the population growth rate. These data suggest a close coupling between irradiance levels and cell cycling in Prochlorococcus spp.
PMCID: PMC92648  PMID: 11157244
16.  Glucose Uptake and Its Effect on Gene Expression in Prochlorococcus 
PLoS ONE  2008;3(10):e3416.
The marine cyanobacteria Prochlorococcus have been considered photoautotrophic microorganisms, although the utilization of exogenous sugars has never been specifically addressed in them. We studied glucose uptake in different high irradiance- and low irradiance-adapted Prochlorococcus strains, as well as the effect of glucose addition on the expression of several glucose-related genes. Glucose uptake was measured by adding radiolabelled glucose to Prochlorococcus cultures, followed by flow cytometry coupled with cell sorting in order to separate Prochlorococcus cells from bacterial contaminants. Sorted cells were recovered by filtration and their radioactivity measured. The expression, after glucose addition, of several genes (involved in glucose metabolism, and in nitrogen assimilation and its regulation) was determined in the low irradiance-adapted Prochlorococcus SS120 strain by semi-quantitative real time RT-PCR, using the rnpB gene as internal control. Our results demonstrate for the first time that the Prochlorococcus strains studied in this work take up glucose at significant rates even at concentrations close to those found in the oceans, and also exclude the possibility of this uptake being carried out by eventual bacterial contaminants, since only Prochlorococcus cells were used for radioactivity measurements. Besides, we show that the expression of a number of genes involved in glucose utilization (namely zwf, gnd and dld, encoding glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, 6-phosphogluconate dehydrogenase and lactate dehydrogenase, respectively) is strongly increased upon glucose addition to cultures of the SS120 strain. This fact, taken together with the magnitude of the glucose uptake, clearly indicates the physiological importance of the phenomenon. Given the significant contribution of Prochlorococcus to the global primary production, these findings have strong implications for the understanding of the phytoplankton role in the carbon cycle in nature. Besides, the ability of assimilating carbon molecules could provide additional hints to comprehend the ecological success of Prochlorococcus.
PMCID: PMC2565063  PMID: 18941506
17.  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
18.  The Infinitely Many Genes Model for the Distributed Genome of Bacteria 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2012;4(4):443-456.
The distributed genome hypothesis states that the gene pool of a bacterial taxon is much more complex than that found in a single individual genome. However, the possible fitness advantage, why such genomic diversity is maintained, whether this variation is largely adaptive or neutral, and why these distinct individuals can coexist, remains poorly understood. Here, we present the infinitely many genes (IMG) model, which is a quantitative, evolutionary model for the distributed genome. It is based on a genealogy of individual genomes and the possibility of gene gain (from an unbounded reservoir of novel genes, e.g., by horizontal gene transfer from distant taxa) and gene loss, for example, by pseudogenization and deletion of genes, during reproduction. By implementing these mechanisms, the IMG model differs from existing concepts for the distributed genome, which cannot differentiate between neutral evolution and adaptation as drivers of the observed genomic diversity. Using the IMG model, we tested whether the distributed genome of 22 full genomes of picocyanobacteria (Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus) shows signs of adaptation or neutrality. We calculated the effective population size of Prochlorococcus at 1.01 × 1011 and predicted 18 distinct clades for this population, only six of which have been isolated and cultured thus far. We predicted that the Prochlorococcus pangenome contains 57,792 genes and found that the evolution of the distributed genome of Prochlorococcus was possibly neutral, whereas that of Synechococcus and the combined sample shows a clear deviation from neutrality.
PMCID: PMC3342869  PMID: 22357598
bacterial evolution; neutral theory; Prochlorococcus
19.  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
20.  The genome and structural proteome of an ocean siphovirus: a new window into the cyanobacterial ‘mobilome’ 
Environmental Microbiology  2009;11(11):2935-2951.
Prochlorococcus, an abundant phototroph in the oceans, are infected by members of three families of viruses: myo-, podo- and siphoviruses. Genomes of myo- and podoviruses isolated on Prochlorococcus contain DNA replication machinery and virion structural genes homologous to those from coliphages T4 and T7 respectively. They also contain a suite of genes of cyanobacterial origin, most notably photosynthesis genes, which are expressed during infection and appear integral to the evolutionary trajectory of both host and phage. Here we present the first genome of a cyanobacterial siphovirus, P-SS2, which was isolated from Atlantic slope waters using a Prochlorococcus host (MIT9313). The P-SS2 genome is larger than, and considerably divergent from, previously sequenced siphoviruses. It appears most closely related to lambdoid siphoviruses, with which it shares 13 functional homologues. The ∼108 kb P-SS2 genome encodes 131 predicted proteins and notably lacks photosynthesis genes which have consistently been found in other marine cyanophage, but does contain 14 other cyanobacterial homologues. While only six structural proteins were identified from the genome sequence, 35 proteins were detected experimentally; these mapped onto capsid and tail structural modules in the genome. P-SS2 is potentially capable of integration into its host as inferred from bioinformatically identified genetic machinery int, bet, exo and a 53 bp attachment site. The host attachment site appears to be a genomic island that is tied to insertion sequence (IS) activity that could facilitate mobility of a gene involved in the nitrogen-stress response. The homologous region and a secondary IS-element hot-spot in Synechococcus RS9917 are further evidence of IS-mediated genome evolution coincident with a probable relic prophage integration event. This siphovirus genome provides a glimpse into the biology of a deep-photic zone phage as well as the ocean cyanobacterial prophage and IS element ‘mobilome’.
PMCID: PMC2784084  PMID: 19840100
21.  Cyanophage tRNAs may have a role in cross-infectivity of oceanic Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus hosts 
The ISME Journal  2011;6(3):619-628.
Marine cyanobacteria of the genera Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus are the most abundant photosynthetic prokaryotes in oceanic environments, and are key contributors to global CO2 fixation, chlorophyll biomass and primary production. Cyanophages, viruses infecting cyanobacteria, are a major force in the ecology of their hosts. These phages contribute greatly to cyanobacterial mortality, therefore acting as a powerful selective force upon their hosts. Phage reproduction is based on utilization of the host transcription and translation mechanisms; therefore, differences in the G+C genomic content between cyanophages and their hosts could be a limiting factor for the translation of cyanophage genes. On the basis of comprehensive genomic analyses conducted in this study, we suggest that cyanophages of the Myoviridae family, which can infect both Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus, overcome this limitation by carrying additional sets of tRNAs in their genomes accommodating AT-rich codons. Whereas the tRNA genes are less needed when infecting their Prochlorococcus hosts, which possess a similar G+C content to the cyanophage, the additional tRNAs may increase the overall translational efficiency of their genes when infecting a Synechococcus host (with high G+C content), therefore potentially enabling the infection of multiple hosts.
PMCID: PMC3280135  PMID: 22011720
codon usage; cross-infectivity; marine cyanophages; Prochlorococcus; Synechococcus; tRNA
22.  Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus have Evolved Different Adaptive Mechanisms to Cope with Light and UV Stress 
Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus, which numerically dominate vast oceanic areas, are the two most abundant oxygenic phototrophs on Earth. Although they require solar energy for photosynthesis, excess light and associated high UV radiations can induce high levels of oxidative stress that may have deleterious effects on their growth and productivity. Here, we compared the photophysiologies of the model strains Prochlorococcus marinus PCC 9511 and Synechococcus sp. WH7803 grown under a bell-shaped light/dark cycle of high visible light supplemented or not with UV. Prochlorococcus exhibited a higher sensitivity to photoinactivation than Synechococcus under both conditions, as shown by a larger drop of photosystem II (PSII) quantum yield at noon and different diel patterns of the D1 protein pool. In the presence of UV, the PSII repair rate was significantly depressed at noon in Prochlorococcus compared to Synechococcus. Additionally, Prochlorococcus was more sensitive than Synechococcus to oxidative stress, as shown by the different degrees of PSII photoinactivation after addition of hydrogen peroxide. A transcriptional analysis also revealed dramatic discrepancies between the two organisms in the diel expression patterns of several genes involved notably in the biosynthesis and/or repair of photosystems, light-harvesting complexes, CO2 fixation as well as protection mechanisms against light, UV, and oxidative stress, which likely translate profound differences in their light-controlled regulation. Altogether our results suggest that while Synechococcus has developed efficient ways to cope with light and UV stress, Prochlorococcus cells seemingly survive stressful hours of the day by launching a minimal set of protection mechanisms and by temporarily bringing down several key metabolic processes. This study provides unprecedented insights into understanding the distinct depth distributions and dynamics of these two picocyanobacteria in the field.
PMCID: PMC3441193  PMID: 23024637
marine cyanobacteria; Synechococcus; Prochlorococcus; light/dark cycle; light stress; UV radiations; oxidative stress; photophysiology
23.  Synechococcus diversity in the California current as seen by RNA polymerase (rpoC1) gene sequences of isolated strains. 
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  1997;63(11):4298-4303.
Because they are ubiquitous in a range of aquatic environments and culture methods are relatively advanced, cyanobacteria may be useful models for understanding the extent of evolutionary adaptation of prokaryotes in general to environmental gradients. The roles of environmental variables such as light and nutrients in influencing cyanobacterial genetic diversity are still poorly characterized, however. In this study, a total of 15 Synechococcus strains were isolated from the oligotrophic edge of the California Current from two depths (5 and 95 m) with large differences in light intensity, light quality, and nutrient concentrations. RNA polymerase gene (rpoC1) fragment sequences of the strains revealed two major genetic lineages, distinct from other marine or freshwater cyanobacterial isolates or groups seen in shotgun-cloned sequences from the oligotrophic Atlantic Ocean. The California Current low-phycourobilin (CCLPUB) group represented by six isolates in a single lineage was less diverse than the California Current high-phycourobilin (CCHPUB) group with nine isolates in three relatively divergent lineages. The former was found to be the closest known genetic group to Prochlorococcus spp., a chlorophyll b-containing cyanobacterial group. Having an isolate from this group will be valuable for looking at the molecular changes necessary for the transition from the use of phycobiliproteins to chlorophyll b as light-harvesting pigments. Both of the CCHPUB and CCLPUB groups included strains obtained from surface (5 m) and deep (95 m) samples. Thus, contrary to expectations, there was no clear correlation between sampling depth and isolation of genetic groups, despite the large environmental gradients present. To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration with isolates that genetically divergent Synechococcus groups coexist in the same seawater sample.
PMCID: PMC168750  PMID: 9361417
24.  Non-coding RNAs in marine Synechococcus and their regulation under environmentally relevant stress conditions 
The ISME Journal  2012;6(8):1544-1557.
Regulatory small RNAs (sRNAs) have crucial roles in the adaptive responses of bacteria to changes in the environment. Thus far, potential regulatory RNAs have been studied mainly in marine picocyanobacteria in genetically intractable Prochlorococcus, rendering their molecular analysis difficult. Synechococcus sp. WH7803 is a model cyanobacterium, representative of the picocyanobacteria from the mesotrophic areas of the ocean. Similar to the closely related Prochlorococcus it possesses a relatively streamlined genome and a small number of genes, but is genetically tractable. Here, a comparative genome analysis was performed for this and four additional marine Synechococcus to identify the suite of possible sRNAs and other RNA elements. Based on the prediction and on complementary microarray profiling, we have identified several known as well as 32 novel sRNAs. Some sRNAs overlap adjacent coding regions, for instance for the central photosynthetic gene psbA. Several of these novel sRNAs responded specifically to environmentally relevant stress conditions. Among them are six sRNAs changing their accumulation level under cold stress, six responding to high light and two to iron limitation. Target predictions suggested genes encoding components of the light-harvesting apparatus as targets of sRNAs originating from genomic islands and that one of the iron-regulated sRNAs might be a functional homolog of RyhB. These data suggest that marine Synechococcus mount adaptive responses to these different stresses involving regulatory sRNAs.
PMCID: PMC3400404  PMID: 22258101
cyanobacteria; gene expression regulation; light stress; regulatory RNA
25.  A motif-based search in bacterial genomes identifies the ortholog of the small RNA Yfr1 in all lineages of cyanobacteria 
BMC Genomics  2007;8:375.
Non-coding RNAs (ncRNA) are regulators of gene expression in all domains of life. They control growth and differentiation, virulence, motility and various stress responses. The identification of ncRNAs can be a tedious process due to the heterogeneous nature of this molecule class and the missing sequence similarity of orthologs, even among closely related species. The small ncRNA Yfr1 has previously been found in the Prochlorococcus/Synechococcus group of marine cyanobacteria.
Here we show that screening available genome sequences based on an RNA motif and followed by experimental analysis works successfully in detecting this RNA in all lineages of cyanobacteria. Yfr1 is an abundant ncRNA between 54 and 69 nt in size that is ubiquitous for cyanobacteria except for two low light-adapted strains of Prochlorococcus, MIT 9211 and SS120, in which it must have been lost secondarily. Yfr1 consists of two predicted stem-loop elements separated by an unpaired sequence of 16–20 nucleotides containing the ultraconserved undecanucleotide 5'-ACUCCUCACAC-3'.
Starting with an ncRNA previously found in a narrow group of cyanobacteria only, we show here the highly specific and sensitive identification of its homologs within all lineages of cyanobacteria, whereas it was not detected within the genome sequences of E. coli and of 7 other eubacteria belonging to the alpha-proteobacteria, chlorobiaceae and spirochaete. The integration of RNA motif prediction into computational pipelines for the detection of ncRNAs in bacteria appears as a promising step to improve the quality of such predictions.
PMCID: PMC2190773  PMID: 17941988

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