Remodeling of intermediate metabolism in the diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum under nitrogen stress. Academic Article uri icon


  • Diatoms are unicellular algae that accumulate significant amounts of triacylglycerols as storage lipids when their growth is limited by nutrients. Using biochemical, physiological, bioinformatics, and reverse genetic approaches, we analyzed how the flux of carbon into lipids is influenced by nitrogen stress in a model diatom, Phaeodactylum tricornutum. Our results reveal that the accumulation of lipids is a consequence of remodeling of intermediate metabolism, especially reactions in the tricarboxylic acid and the urea cycles. Specifically, approximately one-half of the cellular proteins are cannibalized; whereas the nitrogen is scavenged by the urea and glutamine synthetase/glutamine 2-oxoglutarate aminotransferase pathways and redirected to the de novo synthesis of nitrogen assimilation machinery, simultaneously, the photobiological flux of carbon and reductants is used to synthesize lipids. To further examine how nitrogen stress triggers the remodeling process, we knocked down the gene encoding for nitrate reductase, a key enzyme required for the assimilation of nitrate. The strain exhibits 40-50% of the mRNA copy numbers, protein content, and enzymatic activity of the wild type, concomitant with a 43% increase in cellular lipid content. We suggest a negative feedback sensor that couples photosynthetic carbon fixation to lipid biosynthesis and is regulated by the nitrogen assimilation pathway. This metabolic feedback enables diatoms to rapidly respond to fluctuations in environmental nitrogen availability.

publication date

  • January 13, 2015