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1.  The P-SSP7 Cyanophage Has a Linear Genome with Direct Terminal Repeats 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e36710.
P-SSP7 is a T7-like phage that infects the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus MED4. MED4 is a member of the high-light-adapted Prochlorococcus ecotypes that are abundant in the surface oceans and contribute significantly to primary production. P-SSP7 has become a model system for the investigation of T7-like phages that infect Prochlorococcus. It was classified as T7-like based on genome content and organization. However, because its genome assembled as a circular molecule, it was thought to be circularly permuted and to lack the direct terminal repeats found in other T7-like phages. Here we sequenced the ends of the P-SSP7 genome and found that the genome map is linear and contains a 206 bp repeat at both genome ends. Furthermore, we found that a 728 bp region of the genome originally placed downstream of the last ORF is actually located upstream of the first ORF on the genome map. These findings suggest that P-SSP7 is likely to use the direct terminal repeats for genome replication and packaging in a similar manner to other T7-like phages. Moreover, these results highlight the importance of experimentally verifying the ends of phage genomes, and will facilitate the use of P-SSP7 as a model for the correct assembly and end determination of the many T7-like phages isolated from the marine environment that are currently being sequenced.
PMCID: PMC3350473  PMID: 22606283
2.  Virus-host swinging party in the oceans 
Mobile Genetic Elements  2012;2(2):88-95.
Bacteria and their viruses (phages) are antagonists, yet have coexisted in nature for billions of years. Models proposed to explain the paradox of antagonistic coexistence generally reach two types of solutions: Arms race-like dynamics that lead to hosts and viruses with increasing resistance and infection ranges; and population fluctuations between diverse host and viral types due to a metabolic cost of resistance. Recently, we found that populations of the marine cyanobacterium, Prochlorococcus, consist of cells with extreme hypervariability in gene sequence and gene content in a viral susceptibility region of the genome. Furthermore, we found a novel cost of resistance where resistance to one set of viruses is accompanied by changes in infection dynamics by other viruses. In this combined mini-review and commentary paper we discuss these findings in the context of existing ecological, evolutionary and genetic models of host-virus coexistence. We suggest that this coexistence is governed mainly by fluctuations between microbial subpopulations with differing viral susceptibility regions and that these fluctuations are driven by both metabolic and enhanced infection costs of resistance. Furthermore, we suggest that enhanced infection leads to passive host-switching by viruses, preventing the development of hosts with universal resistance. These findings highlight the vital importance of community complexity for host-virus coexistence.
PMCID: PMC3429526  PMID: 22934242
antagonistic coexistence; arms race; fluctuating selection; kill the winner; matching-alleles; gene-for-gene; cost of resistance; virus; cyanobacteria; Prochlorococcus
3.  Antisense RNA protects mRNA from RNase E degradation by RNA–RNA duplex formation during phage infection 
Nucleic Acids Research  2011;39(11):4890-4899.
The ecologically important cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus possesses the smallest genome among oxyphototrophs, with a reduced suite of protein regulators and a disproportionately high number of regulatory RNAs. Many of these are asRNAs, raising the question whether they modulate gene expression through the protection of mRNA from RNase E degradation. To address this question, we produced recombinant RNase E from Prochlorococcus sp. MED4, which functions optimally at 12 mM Mg2+, pH 9 and 35°C. RNase E cleavage assays were performed with this recombinant protein to assess enzyme activity in the presence of single- or double-stranded RNA substrates. We found that extraordinarily long asRNAs of 3.5 and 7 kb protect a set of mRNAs from RNase E degradation that accumulate during phage infection. These asRNA–mRNA duplex formations mask single-stranded recognition sites of RNase E, leading to increased stability of the mRNAs. Such interactions directly modulate RNA stability and provide an explanation for enhanced transcript abundance of certain mRNAs during phage infection. Protection from RNase E-triggered RNA decay may constitute a hitherto unknown regulatory function of bacterial cis-asRNAs, impacting gene expression.
PMCID: PMC3113571  PMID: 21325266
4.  Short RNA half-lives in the slow-growing marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus 
Genome Biology  2010;11(5):R54.
RNA turnover plays an important role in the gene regulation of microorganisms and influences their speed of acclimation to environmental changes. We investigated whole-genome RNA stability of Prochlorococcus, a relatively slow-growing marine cyanobacterium doubling approximately once a day, which is extremely abundant in the oceans.
Using a combination of microarrays, quantitative RT-PCR and a new fitting method for determining RNA decay rates, we found a median half-life of 2.4 minutes and a median decay rate of 2.6 minutes for expressed genes - twofold faster than that reported for any organism. The shortest transcript half-life (33 seconds) was for a gene of unknown function, while some of the longest (approximately 18 minutes) were for genes with high transcript levels. Genes organized in operons displayed intriguing mRNA decay patterns, such as increased stability, and delayed onset of decay with greater distance from the transcriptional start site. The same phenomenon was observed on a single probe resolution for genes greater than 2 kb.
We hypothesize that the fast turnover relative to the slow generation time in Prochlorococcus may enable a swift response to environmental changes through rapid recycling of nucleotides, which could be advantageous in nutrient poor oceans. Our growing understanding of RNA half-lives will help us interpret the growing bank of metatranscriptomic studies of wild populations of Prochlorococcus. The surprisingly complex decay patterns of large transcripts reported here, and the method developed to describe them, will open new avenues for the investigation and understanding of RNA decay for all organisms.
PMCID: PMC2897979  PMID: 20482874
5.  Choreography of the Transcriptome, Photophysiology, and Cell Cycle of a Minimal Photoautotroph, Prochlorococcus 
PLoS ONE  2009;4(4):e5135.
The marine cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus MED4 has the smallest genome and cell size of all known photosynthetic organisms. Like all phototrophs at temperate latitudes, it experiences predictable daily variation in available light energy which leads to temporal regulation and partitioning of key cellular processes. To better understand the tempo and choreography of this minimal phototroph, we studied the entire transcriptome of the cell over a simulated daily light-dark cycle, and placed it in the context of diagnostic physiological and cell cycle parameters. All cells in the culture progressed through their cell cycles in synchrony, thus ensuring that our measurements reflected the behavior of individual cells. Ninety percent of the annotated genes were expressed, and 80% had cyclic expression over the diel cycle. For most genes, expression peaked near sunrise or sunset, although more subtle phasing of gene expression was also evident. Periodicities of the transcripts of genes involved in physiological processes such as in cell cycle progression, photosynthesis, and phosphorus metabolism tracked the timing of these activities relative to the light-dark cycle. Furthermore, the transitions between photosynthesis during the day and catabolic consumption of energy reserves at night— metabolic processes that share some of the same enzymes — appear to be tightly choreographed at the level of RNA expression. In-depth investigation of these patterns identified potential regulatory proteins involved in balancing these opposing pathways. Finally, while this analysis has not helped resolve how a cell with so little regulatory capacity, and a ‘deficient’ circadian mechanism, aligns its cell cycle and metabolism so tightly to a light-dark cycle, it does provide us with a valuable framework upon which to build when the Prochlorococcus proteome and metabolome become available.
PMCID: PMC2663038  PMID: 19352512
6.  Correction: The Challenge of Regulation in a Minimal Photoautotroph: Non-Coding RNAs in Prochlorococcus 
PLoS Genetics  2008;4(11):10.1371/annotation/411b74ae-c4ce-43c9-bdd2-60c2bf60e672.
PMCID: PMC2599920
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.  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
9.  Prevalence and Evolution of Core Photosystem II Genes in Marine Cyanobacterial Viruses and Their Hosts 
PLoS Biology  2006;4(8):e234.
Cyanophages (cyanobacterial viruses) are important agents of horizontal gene transfer among marine cyanobacteria, the numerically dominant photosynthetic organisms in the oceans. Some cyanophage genomes carry and express host-like photosynthesis genes, presumably to augment the host photosynthetic machinery during infection. To study the prevalence and evolutionary dynamics of this phenomenon, 33 cultured cyanophages of known family and host range and viral DNA from field samples were screened for the presence of two core photosystem reaction center genes, psbA and psbD. Combining this expanded dataset with published data for nine other cyanophages, we found that 88% of the phage genomes contain psbA, and 50% contain both psbA and psbD. The psbA gene was found in all myoviruses and Prochlorococcus podoviruses, but could not be amplified from Prochlorococcus siphoviruses or Synechococcus podoviruses. Nearly all of the phages that encoded both psbA and psbD had broad host ranges. We speculate that the presence or absence of psbA in a phage genome may be determined by the length of the latent period of infection. Whether it also carries psbD may reflect constraints on coupling of viral- and host-encoded PsbA–PsbD in the photosynthetic reaction center across divergent hosts. Phylogenetic clustering patterns of these genes from cultured phages suggest that whole genes have been transferred from host to phage in a discrete number of events over the course of evolution (four for psbA, and two for psbD), followed by horizontal and vertical transfer between cyanophages. Clustering patterns of psbA and psbD from Synechococcus cells were inconsistent with other molecular phylogenetic markers, suggesting genetic exchanges involving Synechococcus lineages. Signatures of intragenic recombination, detected within the cyanophage gene pool as well as between hosts and phages in both directions, support this hypothesis. The analysis of cyanophage psbA and psbD genes from field populations revealed significant sequence diversity, much of which is represented in our cultured isolates. Collectively, these findings show that photosynthesis genes are common in cyanophages and that significant genetic exchanges occur from host to phage, phage to host, and within the phage gene pool. This generates genetic diversity among the phage, which serves as a reservoir for their hosts, and in turn influences photosystem evolution.
Analysis of 33 cultured cyanophages of known family and host range, as well as viral DNA from field samples, reveals the prevalence of photosynthesis genes in cyanophages and demonstrates significant genetic exchanges between host and phage.
PMCID: PMC1484495  PMID: 16802857
10.  Ecological Aspects of ntcA Gene Expression and Its Use as an Indicator of the Nitrogen Status of Marine Synechococcus spp. 
Nitrogen nutrition in cyanobacteria is regulated by NtcA, a transcriptional activator that is subject to negative control by ammonium. Using Synechococcus sp. strain WH7803 as a model organism, we show that ntcA expression was induced when cells were exposed to nitrogen stress but not when they were subjected to phosphorus or iron deprivation. Transcript levels accumulated in cells grown on a variety of inorganic and organic nitrogen sources, with the sole exception of ammonium. ntcA transcription was induced when ammonium levels dropped below 1 μM and reached maximal levels within 2 h. Furthermore, the addition of more than 1 μM ammonium led to a rapid decline in ntcA mRNA. The negative effect of ammonium was prevented by the addition of l-methionine-d,l-sulfoximine (MSX) and azaserine, inhibitors of ammonium assimilation. Thus, basal ntcA transcript levels are indicative of ammonium utilization. Conversely, the highest ntcA transcript levels were found in cells lacking a nitrogen source capable of supporting growth. Therefore, maximal ntcA expression would indicate nitrogen deprivation. This state of nitrogen deprivation was induced by a 1-h incubation with MSX. The rapid response of ntcA gene expression to the addition of ammonium and MSX was used to design a protocol for assessing relative ntcA transcript levels in field populations of cyanobacteria, from which their nitrogen status can be inferred. ntcA was basally expressed in Synechococcus at a nutrient-enriched site at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea. Therefore, these cyanobacteria were not nitrogen stressed, and their nitrogen requirements were met by regenerated nitrogen in the form of ammonium.
PMCID: PMC93026  PMID: 11472902
11.  Regulation of ntcA Expression and Nitrite Uptake in the Marine Synechococcus sp. Strain WH 7803 
Journal of Bacteriology  1998;180(7):1878-1886.
NtcA is a transcriptional activator involved in global nitrogen control in cyanobacteria. In the absence of ammonium it regulates the transcription of a series of genes encoding proteins required for the uptake and assimilation of alternative nitrogen sources (I. Luque, E. Flores, and A. Herrero, EMBO J. 13:2862–2869, 1994). ntcA, present in a single copy in the marine Synechococcus sp. strain WH 7803, was cloned and sequenced. The putative amino acid sequence shows a high degree of identity to NtcA from freshwater cyanobacteria in two functional domains. The expression of ntcA was negatively regulated by ammonium from a putative transcription start point located downstream of an NtcA consensus recognition sequence. Addition of either rifampin or ammonium led to a rapid decline in ntcA transcript levels with half-lives of less than 2 min in both cases. Nitrate-grown cells showed high ntcA transcript levels, as well as the capacity for active nitrite uptake. However, ammonium-grown cells showed low levels of the ntcA transcript and did not utilize nitrite. The addition of ammonium to nitrite uptake-active cells resulted in a gradual decline in the rate of uptake over a 24-h period. Active nitrite uptake was not induced in cells transferred to medium lacking a nitrogen source despite evidence of elevated expression of ntcA, indicating that ntcA expression is not sufficient for uptake capacity to develop. Nitrate and nitrite addition led to the development of nitrite uptake, whereas the addition of leucine did not. Furthermore, nitrite addition triggered the de novo protein synthesis required for uptake capacity to develop. These data suggest that nitrite and nitrate act as specific inducers for the synthesis of proteins required for nitrite uptake.
PMCID: PMC107103  PMID: 9537388

Results 1-11 (11)