Genome analysis of the freshwater planktonic Vulcanococcus limneticus sp. nov. reveals horizontal transfer of nitrogenase operon and alternative pathways of nitrogen utilization

Andrea Di Cesare, Pedro J Cabello-Yeves, Nathan A M Chrismas, Patricia Sánchez-Baracaldo, Michaela M Salcher, Cristiana Callieri*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
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BACKGROUND: Many cyanobacteria are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen, playing a crucial role in biogeochemical cycling. Little is known about freshwater unicellular cyanobacteria Synechococcus spp. at the genomic level, despite being recognised of considerable ecological importance in aquatic ecosystems. So far, it has not been shown whether these unicellular picocyanobacteria have the potential for nitrogen fixation. Here, we present the draft-genome of the new pink-pigmented Synechococcus-like strain Vulcanococcus limneticus. sp. nov., isolated from the volcanic Lake Albano (Central Italy).

RESULTS: The novel species Vulcanococcus limneticus sp. nov. falls inside the sub-cluster 5.2, close to the estuarine/marine strains in a maximum-likelihood phylogenetic tree generated with 259 marker genes with representatives from marine, brackish, euryhaline and freshwater habitats. V.limneticus sp. nov. possesses a complete nitrogenase and nif operon. In an experimental setup under nitrogen limiting and non-limiting conditions, growth was observed in both cases. However, the nitrogenase genes (nifHDK) were not transcribed, i.e., V.limneticus sp. nov. did not fix nitrogen, but instead degraded the phycobilisomes to produce sufficient amounts of ammonia. Moreover, the strain encoded many other pathways to incorporate ammonia, nitrate and sulphate, which are energetically less expensive for the cell than fixing nitrogen. The association of the nif operon to a genomic island, the relatively high amount of mobile genetic elements (52 transposases) and the lower observed GC content of V.limneticus sp. nov. nif operon (60.54%) compared to the average of the strain (68.35%) support the theory that this planktonic strain may have obtained, at some point of its evolution, the nif operon by horizontal gene transfer (HGT) from a filamentous or heterocystous cyanobacterium.

CONCLUSIONS: In this study, we describe the novel species Vulcanococcus limneticus sp. nov., which possesses a complete nif operon for nitrogen fixation. The finding that in our experimental conditions V.limneticus sp. nov. did not express the nifHDK genes led us to reconsider the actual ecological meaning of these accessory genes located in genomic island that have possibly been acquired via HGT.

Original languageEnglish
Article number259
Number of pages12
JournalBMC Genomics
Publication statusPublished - 16 Apr 2018


  • Genomic island
  • Horizontal gene transfer (HGT)
  • Nitrogen fixation
  • Nitrogenase genes
  • Picocyanobacteria
  • Vulcanococcus limneticus sp. nov.


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