Thursday, March 5, 2015

024 - Essential metals for nitrogen fixation in a free-living N2-fixing bacterium: chelation, homeostasis and high use efficiency

The molybdenum (Mo) nitrogenase in Azotobacter is preferred, of course, but molybdenum is not always easy to find, especially in nature. Vanadium and iron are more common and available, so the V and Fe nitrogenases probably see regular use.

What They Wanted to Know
J.P. Bellenger and colleagues had already showed how bacteria capture and take up the metals they need with metallophores and transporters, but they wanted to figure out how much of each metal the organisms actually need.

What They Did
They studied A. vinelandii strain CA as a wild-type, and several mutants with various nitrogenases deleted: CA1.70 only has the Mo nitrogenase, CA11.70 only the V, and RP1.11 only the Fe. They also tested A. chroococcum.

They grew these with all the nutrients they needed except nitrogen and with varied concentrations of Mo, V, or Fe, measuring growth rate (by optical density), metallophore production, nitrogen fixation (by acetylene reduction and 15N uptake), intracellular metal/phosphorus, short-term metal uptake (with metal heavy/radioactive isotopes), nitrogenase gene expression (by RT-qPCR of nifD and vnfD), and actual nitrogenase protein levels (by Western blot on NifH).

What They Observed
Growth Rates
Not surprisingly, growth rates for each mutant were lower when given sub-optimal amounts of the metals they needed to fix nitrogen (Fe and sometimes Mo or V). But instead of an exponential growth phase in the curve like one expects, they saw initial fast growth, then a second phase of slower growth before stationary phase. Growth rates were also proportional to intracellular metal levels and nitrogen fixation.

For optimal growth, the Mo-only mutant needed 10-7 to 10-6 M Mo initially. The same was true of V and Fe. Levels higher than that seemed somewhat toxic, but extra Fe helped reduce that effect.

Growth rates of the V-only mutant maxed about 15% less than Mo-only (0.23 vs. 0.27 h-1). Fe-only only got up to 0.12.

Metallophores and Metal Uptake
A. vinelandii produces azotochelin and protochelin to bind useful metals and make them easier to obtain. The authors observed that at the highest Mo/V concentration, these metallophores were much more concentrated (possibly to reduce the metal toxicity). These are produced mostly during early exponential phase (which makes sense).

Though actually, measuring V uptake rates with V either free or bound to metallophores, they found that bound V uptake is slower than uptake of free V. This could be intentional (in a non-anthropomorphic sense); that is, differentially regulated. The maximum rate is always found in intermediate concentrations though. Rates for bound V are very slow at high V levels.

It seemed like intracellular levels of each metal didn't have much effect on levels of other metals; they were mainly regulated based on concentrations in the environment. A. vinelandii keeps taking up Mo as long as it is available (A. chroococcum stops at a much lower value though). This matches with other research on A. vinelandii (014).

With V, A. vinelandii levels increase up to a plateau in intermediate concentrations, but at higher concentrations the levels increase beyond the plateau. Similar with Fe, except Fe-only mutants might have a higher plateau than others. Which makes sense.

Metal Levels and Growth/Nitrogen Fixation
In wild-type A. vinelandii, when growing with V and limited amounts of Mo, the cells start by taking up Mo and growing constantly; when outside Mo runs out, they start taking up V. When that is depleted, the growth rate slows down.

Correspondingly, V-nitrogenase gene expression starts up when Mo runs out, though not all Mo-nitrogenase genes necessarily stop expression at that point.

And finally, overall nitrogenase protein levels stay fairly constant until both Mo and V run out, and then they rise a lot.

What This Means
The two phases can be explained this way: after all the necessary metals have been taken up, no more functional nitrogenase can be made, but what's already there can still fix nitrogen, so the cells can still produce biomass but not at maximum capacity. It's like if you have a big factory that can hold 50 assembly lines but you only have enough equipment for 20; you still produce, but not at your maximum.

The rise in nitrogenase levels after Mo and V run out could indicate that the cells produce extra iron-only nitrogenase when necessary because it will take extra to fix as much nitrogen as they were fixing before, since it's less efficient. That's an interesting, clever regulatory effect, though it isn't entirely clear that's what's happening.

At lower metal concentrations, metallophores seem important in part because they allow the cells to capture metals and make them more available, but also because they make metal uptake easier to regulate so they don't become toxic. This isn't as easy at high levels, as shown by lower growth rates.

The molybdenum and vanadium toxicity could be due to inhibition of iron uptake, causing limitation; the observation that more iron helps alleviate toxicity supports this hypothesis. On the other hand, they didn't really see a drop in iron levels in lower-iron conditions.

They saw Mo storage, but strangely not Fe storage, despite A. vinelandii seeming to have iron-storing mechanisms. It could just be the growth conditions (exponential, nitrogen-fixing).

Overall, it's a lot of data about a pretty complex system. I liked this quote from the conclusions:
"Azotobacter vinelandii thus seems to be well adapted for diazotrophic growth in a soil environment where low availability, large spatiotemporal heterogeneity and strong competition may contribute to metal limitation."

Bellenger, J.-P., Wichard, T., Xu, Y. & Kraepiel, A. M. L. Essential metals for nitrogen fixation in a free-living N2-fixing bacterium: chelation, homeostasis and high use efficiency. Environ. Microbiol. 13, 1395–1411 (2011).

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