Mutational analysis provides direct evidence for the link between proteorhodopsin light-harvesting and enhanced survival of marine bacteria.
Proteorhodopsins are globally abundant photoproteins found in bacteria in the photic zone of the ocean. Although their function as proton pumps with energy-yielding potential has been demonstrated, the ecological role of proteorhodopsins remains largely unexplored. Here, we report the presence and function of proteorhodopsin in a member of the widespread genus Vibrio, uncovered through whole-genome analysis. Phylogenetic analysis suggests that the Vibrio strain AND4 obtained proteorhodopsin through lateral gene transfer, which could have modified the ecology of this marine bacterium. We demonstrate an increased long-term survival of AND4 when starved in seawater exposed to light rather than held in darkness. Furthermore, mutational analysis provides the first direct evidence, to our knowledge, linking the proteorhodopsin gene and its biological function in marine bacteria. Thus, proteorhodopsin phototrophy confers a fitness advantage to marine bacteria, representing a novel mechanism for bacterioplankton to endure frequent periods of resource deprivation at the ocean's surface.
It is estimated that marine microscopic algae—phytoplankton—are responsible for half of the Earth's photosynthesis. As much as half of the surface ocean bacteria have proteorhodopsins, which are membrane proteins that allow harvesting of energy from sunlight, implying a potentially significant role of non–chlorophyll-based phototrophy in oceanic carbon cycling and energy flux. Functional evidence for specific roles for proteorhodopsins in native marine bacteria and the marine environment remains surprisingly scarce. One reason for this is the lack of marine bacteria (containing proteorhodopsin genes) that can be maintained in laboratory culture and that are tractable to genetic manipulation. In this study, we show that a proteorhodopsin-containing member of the widespread marine genus Vibrio displays light-enhanced survival during starvation in seawater. Furthermore, growth recovery experiments showed that bacteria starving in the light could more rapidly respond to improved growth conditions than those incubated in the dark. We generated a proteorhodopsin deficient Vibrio strain and used it to confirm that light-dependent survival of starvation was mediated by the proteorhodopsin. Proteorhodopsin phototrophy thus provides a physiological mechanism that allows surface ocean bacteria to manage an environment where resource availability fluctuates markedly.