Genomic potential for arsenic efflux and methylation varies among global Prochlorococcus populations. Academic Article uri icon


  • The globally significant picocyanobacterium Prochlorococcus is the main primary producer in oligotrophic subtropical gyres. When phosphate concentrations are very low in the marine environment, the mol:mol availability of phosphate relative to the chemically similar arsenate molecule is reduced, potentially resulting in increased cellular arsenic exposure. To mediate accidental arsenate uptake, some Prochlorococcus isolates contain genes encoding a full or partial efflux detoxification pathway, consisting of an arsenate reductase (arsC), an arsenite-specific efflux pump (acr3) and an arsenic-related repressive regulator (arsR). This efflux pathway was the only previously known arsenic detox pathway in Prochlorococcus. We have identified an additional putative arsenic mediation strategy in Prochlorococcus driven by the enzyme arsenite S-adenosylmethionine methyltransferase (ArsM) which can convert inorganic arsenic into more innocuous organic forms and appears to be a more widespread mode of detoxification. We used a phylogenetically informed approach to identify Prochlorococcus linked arsenic genes from both pathways in the Global Ocean Sampling survey. The putative arsenic methylation pathway is nearly ubiquitously present in global Prochlorococcus populations. In contrast, the complete efflux pathway is only maintained in populations which experience extremely low PO4:AsO4, such as regions in the tropical and subtropical Atlantic. Thus, environmental exposure to arsenic appears to select for maintenance of the efflux detoxification pathway in Prochlorococcus. The differential distribution of these two pathways has implications for global arsenic cycling, as their associated end products, arsenite or organoarsenicals, have differing biochemical activities and residence times.

publication date

  • January 2016