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The filamentous cyanobacterium Anabaena variabilis ATCC 29413 fixes nitrogen under aerobic conditions in specialized cells called heterocysts that form in response to an environmental deficiency in combined nitrogen. Nitrogen fixation is mediated by the enzyme nitrogenase, which is very sensitive to oxygen. Heterocysts are microxic cells that allow nitrogenase to function in a filament comprised primarily of vegetative cells that produce oxygen by photosynthesis. A. variabilis is unique among well-characterized cyanobacteria in that it has three nitrogenase gene clusters that encode different nitrogenases, which function under different environmental conditions. The nif1 genes encode a Mo-nitrogenase that functions only in heterocysts, even in filaments grown anaerobically. The nif2 genes encode a different Mo-nitrogenase that functions in vegetative cells, but only in filaments grown under anoxic conditions. An alternative V-nitrogenase is encoded by vnf genes that are expressed only in heterocysts in an environment that is deficient in Mo. Thus, these three nitrogenases are expressed differentially in response to environmental conditions. The entire nif1 gene cluster, comprising at least 15 genes, is primarily under the control of the promoter for the first gene, nifB1. Transcriptional control of many of the downstream nif1 genes occurs by a combination of weak promoters within the coding regions of some downstream genes and by RNA processing, which is associated with increased transcript stability. The vnf genes show a similar pattern of transcriptional and post-transcriptional control of expression suggesting that the complex pattern of regulation of the nif1 cluster is conserved in other cyanobacterial nitrogenase gene clusters.

Publication Date

December 2014

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