Phaeodactylum tricornutum is a unicellular diatom in the class Bacillariophyceae. The full genome has been sequenced (<30 Mb), and approximately 20 to 30% triacylglyceride (TAG) accumulation on a dry cell basis has been reported under different growth conditions. To elucidate P. tricornutum gene expression profiles during nutrient-deprivation and lipid-accumulation, cell cultures were grown with a nitrate to phosphate ratio of 20:1 (N:P) and whole-genome transcripts were monitored over time via RNA-sequence determination.
The specific Nile Red (NR) fluorescence (NR fluorescence per cell) increased over time; however, the increase in NR fluorescence was initiated before external nitrate was completely exhausted. Exogenous phosphate was depleted before nitrate, and these results indicated that the depletion of exogenous phosphate might be an early trigger for lipid accumulation that is magnified upon nitrate depletion. As expected, many of the genes associated with nitrate and phosphate utilization were up-expressed. The diatom-specific cyclins cyc7 and cyc10 were down-expressed during the nutrient-deplete state, and cyclin B1 was up-expressed during lipid-accumulation after growth cessation. While many of the genes associated with the C3 pathway for photosynthetic carbon reduction were not significantly altered, genes involved in a putative C4 pathway for photosynthetic carbon assimilation were up-expressed as the cells depleted nitrate, phosphate, and exogenous dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) levels. P. tricornutum has multiple, putative carbonic anhydrases, but only two were significantly up-expressed (2-fold and 4-fold) at the last time point when exogenous DIC levels had increased after the cessation of growth. Alternative pathways that could utilize HCO3- were also suggested by the gene expression profiles (e.g., putative propionyl-CoA and methylmalonyl-CoA decarboxylases).
The results indicate that P. tricornutum continued carbon dioxide reduction when population growth was arrested and different carbon-concentrating mechanisms were used dependent upon exogenous DIC levels. Based upon overall low gene expression levels for fatty acid synthesis, the results also suggest that the build-up of precursors to the acetyl-CoA carboxylases may play a more significant role in TAG synthesis rather than the actual enzyme levels of acetyl-CoA carboxylases per se. The presented insights into the types and timing of cellular responses to inorganic carbon will help maximize photoautotrophic carbon flow to lipid accumulation.