Molecular and physiological evidence of genetic assimilation to high CO2 in the marine nitrogen fixer Trichodesmium

Most investigations of biogeochemically important microbes have focused on plastic (short-term) phenotypic responses in the absence of genetic change, whereas few have investigated adaptive (long-term) responses. However, no studies to date have investigated the molecular progression underlying the transition from plasticity to adaptation under elevated CO2 for a marine nitrogen-fixer. To address this gap, we cultured the globally important cyanobacterium Trichodesmium at both low and high CO2 for 4.5 y, followed by reciprocal transplantation experiments to test for adaptation. Intriguingly, fitness actually increased in all high-CO2 adapted cell lines in the ancestral environment upon reciprocal transplantation. By leveraging coordinated phenotypic and transcriptomic profiles, we identified expression changes and pathway enrichments that rapidly responded to elevated CO2 and were maintained upon adaptation, providing strong evidence for genetic assimilation. These candidate genes and pathways included those involved in photosystems, transcriptional regulation, cell signaling, carbon/nitrogen storage, and energy metabolism. Conversely, significant changes in specific sigma factor expression were only observed upon adaptation. These data reveal genetic assimilation as a potentially adaptive response of Trichodesmium and importantly elucidate underlying metabolic pathways paralleling the fixation of the plastic phenotype upon adaptation, thereby contributing to the few available data demonstrating genetic assimilation in microbial photoautotrophs. These molecular insights are thus critical for identifying pathways under selection as drivers in plasticity and adaptation.

Walworth N. G., Lee M. D., Fu F.-X., Hutchins D. A. & Webb E. A., 2016. Molecular and physiological evidence of genetic assimilation to high CO2 in the marine nitrogen fixer Trichodesmium. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America 113(47):E7367–E7374. Article.

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