Tuesday, September 30, 2014

106 - Control of dinitrogen fixation in ammonium-assimilating cultures of Azotobacter vinelandii

What They Wanted to Know
As mentioned last time (105), as the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of culture medium increases (and the carbon becomes a lot more available than fixed nitrogen), Azotobacter vinelandii biomass stays fairly level for a time, and then starts increasing; it's like two different phases. This depends on the oxygen exposure somewhat (at low oxygen, biomass increases more linearly; at high oxygen, it doesn't increase much at all, at least at the C/N ratios tested), but is a definite phenomenon at some levels.

The hypothesis is that, when there's not much more carbon than fixed nitrogen, there's not enough nitrogen to produce much more biomass (nitrogen is limiting), and there's not enough carbon to make the cells start fixing nitrogen (because that takes a lot of energy; so carbon is also limiting). But as carbon increases, the cells start up their nitrogenase, and nitrogen stops being limiting, so biomass increases.

In this paper, Bühler, Oelze, and colleagues wanted to see if this was actually what was happening in the cells, by testing nitrogenase activity directly.

What They Did

As before, they grew A. vinelandii CA in a chemostat, but this time they measured nitrogenase activity by acetylene reduction (nitrogenase can reduce acetylene/ethyne to ethylene/ethene, which is easy to measure). They also measured total nitrogen and protein contents of the culture, corrected for added ammonium. And to make triple-sure, they did Western blots on samples of culture, using antibodies targeting nitrogen-fixing proteins.

What They Observed
As in 105, protein/nitrogen content remained fairly constant at a mid-range oxygen level up to a point as sucrose increased, and beyond that point, it increased proportionally along with dry weight.

For nitrogenase activity, they saw that the higher the oxygen, the higher the C/N ratio had to be before the cells had detectable nitrogenase activity (and the lower the peak activity at the highest carbon level). After nitrogenase started, it increased up to a certain C/N level, then leveled off. 

They give a formula for how to calculate the C/N ratio when nitrogenase starts working. And based on that, they figured out that cells started fixing nitrogen when the ammonium they were given was not enough for production of biomass from the sucrose they were given. Which makes sense. That happens at about 14 mmol ammonium per gram of protein.

Finally, they wanted to figure out whether nitrogenase proteins needed to be synthesized from scratch in ammonium-grown cells, or whether they were already present to some extent, just not active. So they used Western blots to look at nitrogenase proteins from cells at various C/N ratios. The lowest ratio showed no nitrogenase activity and no visible nitrogenase protein on the blot; mid-range showed slight activity and the faintest of bands; and the highest showed good activity and solid, visible bands. Flavodoxin proteins, related to electron transport to nitrogenase, showed up at all ratios, interestingly.

What This Means
It appears from this that cells have to produce nitrogenase proteins from scratch as C/N ratios increase, but I'm not sure it's clear that inactive versions of the proteins would show up on the blot. Maybe the antibodies they used to detect the active versions don't work well on inactive versions. It's possible.

The other possibility is that A. vinelandii does keep inactive nitrogenase around for short periods, but eventually breaks it down, and the cells in this study were kept too long in nitrogen-sufficient conditions, so they had to re-synthesize nitrogenase. This would make sense too.

In order to explain the nitrogenase regulation, the authors say it's tempting to say the need for respiratory protection is why cells don't fix nitrogen until C/N ratios are high enough, but clarify that another explanation could be that the cells just have enough fixed nitrogen until a certain point. A tricky conclusion to a tricky series of studies. Perhaps I will revisit later.

Citation: Bühler, T. et al. Control of dinitrogen fixation in ammonium-assimilating cultures of Azotobacter vinelandii. Archives of Microbiology 148, 247–251 (1987).

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