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Anabaena with heterocysts

Published By

Dr. Dick van der Wateren



nitrogen fixation, lipids, symbiosis, Cyanobacteria

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Fossilized glycolipids reveal past oceanic N2 fixation by heterocystous cyanobacteria

10.11.2010, Age: 3970 days

New paper in PNAS reports on use of new analytic tools to study the role of heterocystous cyanobacteria in fixing nitrogen in the surface waters of the oceans.


N2-fixing cyanobacteria play an essential role in sustaining primary productivity in contemporary oceans and freshwater systems. However, the significance of N2-fixing cyanobacteria in past nitrogen cycling is difficult to establish as their preservation potential is relatively poor and specific biological markers are presently lacking. Heterocystous N2-fixing cyanobacteria synthesize unique long-chain glycolipids in the cell envelope covering the heterocyst cell to protect the oxygen-sensitive nitrogenase enzyme. We found that these heterocyst glycolipids are remarkably well preserved in (ancient) lacustrine and marine sediments, unambiguously indicating the (past) presence of N2-fixing heterocystous cyanobacteria. Analysis of Pleistocene sediments of the eastern Mediterranean Sea showed that heterocystous cyanobacteria, likely as epiphytes in symbiosis with planktonic diatoms, were particularly abundant during deposition of sapropels. Eocene Arctic Ocean sediments deposited at a time of large Azolla blooms contained glycolipids typical for heterocystous cyanobacteria presently living in symbiosis with the freshwater fern Azolla, indicating that this symbiosis already existed in that time. Our study thus suggests that heterocystous cyanobacteria played a major role in adding “new” fixed nitrogen to surface waters in past stratified oceans.

Thorsten Bauersachs, Eveline N. Speelman, Ellen C. Hopmans, Gert-Jan Reichart, Stefan Schoutena and Jaap S. Sinninghe Damsté. Fossilized glycolipids reveal past oceanic N2 fixation by heterocystous cyanobacteria. Published online before print October 21, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1007526107 PNAS November 9, 2010 vol. 107 no. 45 19190-19194.

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