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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.  Transcriptome response of high- and low-light-adapted Prochlorococcus strains to changing iron availability 
The ISME Journal  2011;5(10):1580-1594.
Prochlorococcus contributes significantly to ocean primary productivity. The link between primary productivity and iron in specific ocean regions is well established and iron limitation of Prochlorococcus cell division rates in these regions has been shown. However, the extent of ecotypic variation in iron metabolism among Prochlorococcus and the molecular basis for differences is not understood. Here, we examine the growth and transcriptional response of Prochlorococcus strains, MED4 and MIT9313, to changing iron concentrations. During steady state, MIT9313 sustains growth at an order-of-magnitude lower iron concentration than MED4. To explore this difference, we measured the whole-genome transcriptional response of each strain to abrupt iron starvation and rescue. Only four of the 1159 orthologs of MED4 and MIT9313 were differentially expressed in response to iron in both strains. However, in each strain, the expression of over a hundred additional genes changed, many of which are in labile genomic regions, suggesting a role for lateral gene transfer in establishing diversity of iron metabolism among Prochlorococcus. Furthermore, we found that MED4 lacks three genes near the iron-deficiency-induced gene (idiA) that are present and induced by iron stress in MIT9313. These genes are interesting targets for studying the adaptation of natural Prochlorococcus assemblages to local iron conditions as they show more diversity than other genomic regions in environmental metagenomic databases.
PMCID: PMC3176520  PMID: 21562599
cyanobacteria; iron; transcriptome
3.  Global gene expression of Prochlorococcus ecotypes in response to changes in nitrogen availability 
Nitrogen (N) often limits biological productivity in the oceanic gyres where Prochlorococcus is the most abundant photosynthetic organism. The Prochlorococcus community is composed of strains, such as MED4 and MIT9313, that have different N utilization capabilities and that belong to ecotypes with different depth distributions. An interstrain comparison of how Prochlorococcus responds to changes in ambient nitrogen is thus central to understanding its ecology. We quantified changes in MED4 and MIT9313 global mRNA expression, chlorophyll fluorescence, and photosystem II photochemical efficiency (Fv/Fm) along a time series of increasing N starvation. In addition, the global expression of both strains growing in ammonium-replete medium was compared to expression during growth on alternative N sources. There were interstrain similarities in N regulation such as the activation of a putative NtcA regulon during N stress. There were also important differences between the strains such as in the expression patterns of carbon metabolism genes, suggesting that the two strains integrate N and C metabolism in fundamentally different ways.
PMCID: PMC1682016  PMID: 17016519
cyanobacteria; interstrain; nitrogen; Prochlorococcus; transcription
4.  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
5.  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
6.  Response of Prochlorococcus ecotypes to co-culture with diverse marine bacteria 
The ISME Journal  2011;5(7):1125-1132.
Interactions between microorganisms shape microbial ecosystems. Systematic studies of mixed microbes in co-culture have revealed widespread potential for growth inhibition among marine heterotrophic bacteria, but similar synoptic studies have not been done with autotroph/heterotroph pairs, nor have precise descriptions of the temporal evolution of interactions been attempted in a high-throughput system. Here, we describe patterns in the outcome of pair-wise co-cultures between two ecologically distinct, yet closely related, strains of the marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus and hundreds of heterotrophic marine bacteria. Co-culture with the collection of heterotrophic strains influenced the growth of Prochlorococcus strain MIT9313 much more than that of strain MED4, reflected both in the number of different types of interactions and in the magnitude of the effect of co-culture on various culture parameters. Enhancing interactions, where the presence of heterotrophic bacteria caused Prochlorococcus to grow faster and reach a higher final culture chlorophyll fluorescence, were much more common than antagonistic ones, and for a selected number of cases were shown to be mediated by diffusible compounds. In contrast, for one case at least, temporary inhibition of Prochlorococcus MIT9313 appeared to require close cellular proximity. Bacterial strains whose 16S gene sequences differed by 1–2% tended to have similar effects on MIT9313, suggesting that the patterns of inhibition and enhancement in co-culture observed here are due to phylogenetically cohesive traits of these heterotrophs.
PMCID: PMC3146288  PMID: 21326334
heterotrophic bacteria; interactions; phylogeny; Prochlorococcus
7.  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
8.  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
9.  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
10.  Cryo-Electron Tomography Reveals the Comparative Three-Dimensional Architecture of Prochlorococcus, a Globally Important Marine Cyanobacterium▿  
Journal of Bacteriology  2007;189(12):4485-4493.
In an age of comparative microbial genomics, knowledge of the near-native architecture of microorganisms is essential for achieving an integrative understanding of physiology and function. We characterized and compared the three-dimensional architecture of the ecologically important cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus in a near-native state using cryo-electron tomography and found that closely related strains have diverged substantially in cellular organization and structure. By visualizing native, hydrated structures within cells, we discovered that the MED4 strain, which possesses one of the smallest genomes (1.66 Mbp) of any known photosynthetic organism, has evolved a comparatively streamlined cellular architecture. This strain possesses a smaller cell volume, an attenuated cell wall, and less extensive intracytoplasmic (photosynthetic) membrane system compared to the more deeply branched MIT9313 strain. Comparative genomic analyses indicate that differences have evolved in key structural genes, including those encoding enzymes involved in cell wall peptidoglycan biosynthesis. Although both strains possess carboxysomes that are polygonal and cluster in the central cytoplasm, the carboxysomes of MED4 are smaller. A streamlined cellular structure could be advantageous to microorganisms thriving in the low-nutrient conditions characteristic of large regions of the open ocean and thus have consequences for ecological niche differentiation. Through cryo-electron tomography we visualized, for the first time, the three-dimensional structure of the extensive network of photosynthetic lamellae within Prochlorococcus and the potential pathways for intracellular and intermembrane movement of molecules. Comparative information on the near-native structure of microorganisms is an important and necessary component of exploring microbial diversity and understanding its consequences for function and ecology.
PMCID: PMC1913349  PMID: 17449628
11.  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
12.  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
13.  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
14.  Operon prediction by comparative genomics: an application to the Synechococcus sp. WH8102 genome 
Nucleic Acids Research  2004;32(7):2147-2157.
We present a computational method for operon prediction based on a comparative genomics approach. A group of consecutive genes is considered as a candidate operon if both their gene sequences and functions are conserved across several phylogenetically related genomes. In addition, various supporting data for operons are also collected through the application of public domain computer programs, and used in our prediction method. These include the prediction of conserved gene functions, promoter motifs and terminators. An apparent advantage of our approach over other operon prediction methods is that it does not require many experimental data (such as gene expression data and pathway data) as input. This feature makes it applicable to many newly sequenced genomes that do not have extensive experimental information. In order to validate our prediction, we have tested the method on Escherichia coli K12, in which operon structures have been extensively studied, through a comparative analysis against Haemophilus influenzae Rd and Salmonella typhimurium LT2. Our method successfully predicted most of the 237 known operons. After this initial validation, we then applied the method to a newly sequenced and annotated microbial genome, Synechococcus sp. WH8102, through a comparative genome analysis with two other cyanobacterial genomes, Prochlorococcus marinus sp. MED4 and P.marinus sp. MIT9313. Our results are consistent with previously reported results and statistics on operons in the literature.
PMCID: PMC407844  PMID: 15096577
15.  Analysis of the 3′ ends of tRNA as the cause of insertion sites of foreign DNA in Prochlorococcus *  
The purpose of this study was to investigate the characteristics of transfer RNA (tRNA) responsible for the association between tRNA genes and genes of apparently foreign origin (genomic islands) in five high-light adapted Prochlorococcus strains. Both bidirectional best BLASTP (basic local alignment search tool for proteins) search and the conservation of gene order against each other were utilized to identify genomic islands, and 7 genomic islands were found to be immediately adjacent to tRNAs in Prochlorococcus marinus AS9601, 11 in P. marinus MIT9515, 8 in P. marinus MED4, 6 in P. marinus MIT9301, and 6 in P. marinus MIT9312. Monte Carlo simulation showed that tRNA genes are hotspots for the integration of genomic islands in Prochlorococcus strains. The tRNA genes associated with genomic islands showed the following characteristics: (1) the association was biased towards a specific subset of all iso-accepting tRNA genes; (2) the codon usages of genes within genomic islands appear to be unrelated to the codons recognized by associated tRNAs; and, (3) the majority of the 3′ ends of associated tRNAs lack CCA ends. These findings contradict previous hypotheses concerning the molecular basis for the frequent use of tRNA as the insertion site for foreign genetic materials. The analysis of a genomic island associated with a tRNA-Asn gene in P. marinus MIT9301 suggests that foreign genetic material is inserted into the host genomes by means of site-specific recombination, with the 3′ end of the tRNA as the target, and during the process, a direct repeat of the 3′ end sequence of a boundary tRNA (namely, a scar from the process of insertion) is formed elsewhere in the genomic island. Through the analysis of the sequences of these targets, it can be concluded that a region characterized by both high GC content and a palindromic structure is the preferred insertion site.
PMCID: PMC2932881  PMID: 20803775
Genomic islands; Prochlorococcus; Transfer RNA (tRNA); Palindromic structure; Codon usage
16.  Sequence analysis of a complete 1.66 Mb Prochlorococcus marinus MED4 genome cloned in yeast 
Nucleic Acids Research  2012;40(20):10375-10383.
Marine cyanobacteria of the genus Prochlorococcus represent numerically dominant photoautotrophs residing throughout the euphotic zones in the open oceans and are major contributors to the global carbon cycle. Prochlorococcus has remained a genetically intractable bacterium due to slow growth rates and low transformation efficiencies using standard techniques. Our recent successes in cloning and genetically engineering the AT-rich, 1.1 Mb Mycoplasma mycoides genome in yeast encouraged us to explore similar methods with Prochlorococcus. Prochlorococcus MED4 has an AT-rich genome, with a GC content of 30.8%, similar to that of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (38%), and contains abundant yeast replication origin consensus sites (ACS) evenly distributed around its 1.66 Mb genome. Unlike Mycoplasma cells, which use the UGA codon for tryptophane, Prochlorococcus uses the standard genetic code. Despite this, we observed no toxic effects of several partial and 15 whole Prochlorococcus MED4 genome clones in S. cerevisiae. Sequencing of a Prochlorococcus genome purified from yeast identified 14 single base pair missense mutations, one frameshift, one single base substitution to a stop codon and one dinucleotide transversion compared to the donor genomic DNA. We thus provide evidence of transformation, replication and maintenance of this 1.66 Mb intact bacterial genome in S. cerevisiae.
PMCID: PMC3488255  PMID: 22941652
17.  A novel clade of Prochlorococcus found in high nutrient low chlorophyll waters in the South and Equatorial Pacific Ocean 
The ISME journal  2010;5(6):933-944.
A novel high-light (HL)-adapted Prochlorococcus clade was discovered in high nutrient and low chlorophyll (HNLC) waters in the South Pacific Ocean by phylogenetic analyses of 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) and 16S–23S internal transcribed spacer (ITS) sequences. This clade, named HNLC fell within the HL-adapted Prochlorococcus clade with sequences above 99% similarity to one another, and was divided into two subclades, HNLC1 and HNLC2. The distribution of the whole HNLC clade in a northwest to southeast transect in the South Pacific (HNLC-to-gyre) and two 8°N to 8°S transects in the Equatorial Pacific was determined by quantitative PCR using specific primers targeting ITS regions. HNLC was the dominant HL Prochlorococcus clade (2–9% of bacterial 16S rRNA genes) at the three westernmost stations in the South Pacific but decreased to less than 0.1% at the other stations being replaced by the eMIT9312 ecotype in the hyperoligotrophic gyre. The highest contributions of HNLC Prochlorococcus in both Equatorial Pacific transects along the latitudinal lines of 170°W and 155°W were observed at the southernmost stations, reaching 16 and 6% of bacterial 16S rRNA genes, respectively, whereas eMIT9312 dominated near the Equator. Spearman Rank Order correlation analysis indicated that although both the HNLC clade and eMIT9312 were correlated with temperature, they showed different correlations with regard to nutrients. HNLC only showed significant correlations to ammonium uptake and regeneration rates, whereas eMIT9312 was negatively correlated with inorganic nutrients.
PMCID: PMC3131852  PMID: 21124492
16S rRNA; Equatorial Pacific; HNLC; ITS; Prochlorococcus; qPCR
18.  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
19.  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
20.  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
21.  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
22.  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
23.  Aerobic Anoxygenic Phototrophic Bacteria in the Mid-Atlantic Bight and the North Pacific Gyre 
The abundance of aerobic anoxygenic phototrophic (AAP) bacteria, cyanobacteria, and heterotrophs was examined in the Mid-Atlantic Bight and the central North Pacific Gyre using infrared fluorescence microscopy coupled with image analysis and flow cytometry. AAP bacteria comprised 5% to 16% of total prokaryotes in the Atlantic Ocean but only 5% or less in the Pacific Ocean. In the Atlantic, AAP bacterial abundance was as much as 2-fold higher than that of Prochlorococcus spp. and 10-fold higher than that of Synechococcus spp. In contrast, Prochlorococcus spp. outnumbered AAP bacteria 5- to 50-fold in the Pacific. In both oceans, subsurface abundance maxima occurred within the photic zone, and AAP bacteria were least abundant below the 1% light depth. The abundance of AAP bacteria rivaled some groups of strictly heterotrophic bacteria and was often higher than the abundance of known AAP bacterial genera (Erythrobacter and Roseobacter spp.). Concentrations of bacteriochlorophyll a (BChl a) were low (∼1%) compared to those of chlorophyll a in the North Atlantic. Although the BChl a content of AAP bacteria per cell was typically 20- to 250-fold lower than the divinyl-chlorophyll a content of Prochlorococcus, the pigment content of AAP bacteria approached that of Prochlorococcus in shelf break water. Our results suggest that AAP bacteria can be quite abundant in some oceanic regimes and that their distribution in the water column is consistent with phototrophy.
PMCID: PMC1352302  PMID: 16391092
24.  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
25.  Niche-Partitioning of Prochlorococcus Populations in a Stratified Water Column in the Eastern North Atlantic Ocean† 
The in situ community structure of Prochlorococcus populations in the eastern North Atlantic Ocean was examined by analysis of Prochlorococcus 16S rDNA sequences with three independent approaches: cloning and sequencing, hybridization to specific oligonucleotide probes, and denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE). The hybridization of high-light (HL) and low-light (LL) Prochlorococcus genotype-specific probes to two depth profiles of PCR-amplified 16S rDNA sequences revealed that in these two stratified water columns, an obvious niche-partitioning of Prochlorococcus genotypes occurred. In each water column a shift from the HL to the LL genotype was observed, a transition correlating with the depth of the surface mixed layer (SML). Only the HL genotype was found in the SML in each water column, whereas the LL genotype was distributed below the SML. The range of in situ irradiance to which each genotype was subjected within these distinct niches was consistent with growth irradiance studies of cultured HL- and LL-adapted Prochlorococcus strains. DGGE analysis and the sequencing of Prochlorococcus 16S rDNA clones were in full agreement with the genotype-specific oligonucleotide probe hybridization data. These observations of a partitioning of Prochlorococcus genotypes in a stratified water column provide a genetic basis for the dim and bright Prochlorococcus populations observed in flow cytometric signatures in several oceanic provinces.
PMCID: PMC91382  PMID: 10347047

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