Although 80 percent of Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen, most organisms cannot use it unless it is "fixed" to other elements to make molecules like ammonia and nitrate. Because nitrogen is essential for all forms of life, nitrogen fixation is a major factor controlling overall biological productivity in the oceans.
The new microbe is one of the most abundant nitrogen fixers in many parts of the ocean, Zehr said.
New DNA sequencing technology provided by 454 Life Sciences enabled rapid sequencing of the organism's genome.
"I had begun to suspect that there was something missing in this organism's genome, and the genome sequencing confirmed that," said Zehr.
The results showed that it is missing the entire set of genes needed for photosystem II and carbon fixation, essential parts of the molecular machinery that carries out photosynthesis in plants and cyanobacteria.
"That has multiple implications," Zehr said. "It must have a 'lifestyle' that's very different from other cyanobacteria. Ecologically, it's important to understand its role in the ecosystem and how it affects the balance of carbon and nitrogen in the ocean."
During photosynthesis, photosystem II generates oxygen by splitting water molecules. Because oxygen inhibits nitrogen fixation, most nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria only fix nitrogen at night, or do it in specialized cells. The lack of photosystem II enables the new microbe to fix nitrogen during the day, Zehr said.
But without photosynthesis, it can't take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into sugars. So it's not clear how the new microbe feeds itself. Either it has some way of feeding on organic matter in its environment, or it lives in close association with other organisms that provide it with food, Zehr said.
"It would make a perfect symbiont because it could feed nitrogen to its host and live on the carbon provided by the host," he said.
|Contact: Cheryl Dybas|
National Science Foundation