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.
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.