Antenna Modification Leads to Enhanced Nitrogenase Activity in a High Light-Tolerant Cyanobacterium

Anindita Bandyopadhyay, Zi Ye, Zuzana Benedikty, Martin Trtilek, Himadri B. Pakrasi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Biological nitrogen fixation is an energy-intensive process that contributes significantly toward supporting life on this planet. Among nitrogen-fixing organisms, cyanobacteria remain unrivaled in their ability to fuel the energetically expensive nitrogenase reaction with photosynthetically harnessed solar energy. In heterocystous cyanobacteria, light-driven, photosystem I (PSI)-mediated ATP synthesis plays a key role in propelling the nitrogenase reaction. Efficient light transfer to the photosystems relies on phycobilisomes (PBS), the major antenna protein complexes. PBS undergo degradation as a natural response to nitrogen starvation. Upon nitrogen availability, these proteins are resynthesized back to normal levels in vegetative cells, but their occurrence and function in heterocysts remain inconclusive. Anabaena 33047 is a heterocystous cyanobacterium that thrives under high light, harbors larger amounts of PBS in its heterocysts, and fixes nitrogen at higher rates compared to other heterocystous cyanobacteria. To assess the relationship between PBS in heterocysts and nitrogenase function, we engineered a strain that retains large amounts of the antenna proteins in its heterocysts. Intriguingly, under high light intensities, the engineered strain exhibited unusually high rates of nitrogenase activity compared to the wild type. Spectroscopic analysis revealed altered PSI kinetics in the mutant with increased cyclic electron flow around PSI, a route that contributes to ATP generation and nitrogenase activity in heterocysts. Retaining higher levels of PBS in heterocysts appears to be an effective strategy to enhance nitrogenase function in cyanobacteria that are equipped with the machinery to operate under high light intensities. IMPORTANCE The function of phycobilisomes, the large antenna protein complexes in heterocysts has long been debated. This study provides direct evidence of the involvement of these proteins in supporting nitrogenase activity in Anabaena 33047, a heterocystous cyanobacterium that has an affinity for high light intensities. This strain was previously known to be recalcitrant to genetic manipulation and, hence, despite its many appealing traits, remained largely unexplored. We developed a genetic modification system for this strain and generated a DnblA mutant that exhibited resistance to phycobilisome degradation upon nitrogen starvation. Physiological characterization of the strain indicated that PBS degradation is not essential for acclimation to nitrogen deficiency and retention of PBS is advantageous for nitrogenase function.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere03408-21
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021


  • Cyanobacterium
  • Cyclic electron flow
  • Heterocyst
  • Nitrogenase
  • Photosystem I
  • Phycobilisome


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