The photosynthetic apparatus of Prochlorococcus: Insights through comparative genomics. Academic Article uri icon


  • Within the vast oceanic gyres, a significant fraction of the total chlorophyll belongs to the light-harvesting antenna systems of a single genus, Prochlorococcus. This organism, discovered only about 10 years ago, is an extremely small, Chl b-containing cyanobacterium that sometimes constitutes up to 50% of the photosynthetic biomass in the oceans. Various Prochlorococcus strains are known to have significantly different conditions for optimal growth and survival. Strains which dominate the surface waters, for example, have an irradiance optimum for photosynthesis of 200 mumol photons m(-2) s(-1), whereas those that dominate the deeper waters photosynthesize optimally at 30-50 mumol photons m(-2) s(-1). These high and low light adapted 'ecotypes' are very closely related - less than 3% divergent in their 16S rRNA sequences - inviting speculation as to what features of their photosynthetic mechanisms might account for the differences in photosynthetic performance. Here, we compare information obtained from the complete genome sequences of two Prochlorococcus strains, with special emphasis on genes for the photosynthetic apparatus. These two strains, Prochlorococcus MED4 and MIT 9313, are representatives of high- and low-light adapted ecotypes, characterized by their low or high Chl b/a ratio, respectively. Both genomes appear to be significantly smaller (1700 and 2400 kbp) than those of other cyanobacteria, and the low-light-adapted strain has significantly more genes than its high light counterpart. In keeping with their comparative light-dependent physiologies, MED4 has many more genes encoding putative high-light-inducible proteins (HLIP) and photolyases to repair UV-induced DNA damage, whereas MIT 9313 possesses more genes associated with the photosynthetic apparatus. These include two pcb genes encoding Chl-binding proteins and a second copy of the gene psbA, encoding the Photosystem II reaction center protein D1. In addition, MIT 9313 contains a gene cluster to produce chromophorylated phycoerythrin. The latter represents an intermediate form between the phycobiliproteins of non-Chl b containing cyanobacteria and an extremely modified beta phycoerythrin as the sole derivative of phycobiliproteins still present in MED4. Intriguing features found in both Prochlorococcus strains include a gene cluster for Rubisco and carboxysomal proteins that is likely of non-cyanobacterial origin and two genes for a putative varepsilon and beta lycopene cyclase, respectively, explaining how Prochlorococcus may synthesize the alpha branch of carotenoids that are common in green organisms but not in other cyanobacteria.

publication date

  • 2001