Phosphite utilization by the marine picocyanobacterium Prochlorococcus MIT9301


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Primary productivity in the ocean's oligotrophic regions is often limited by phosphorus (P) availability. In low phosphate environments, the prevalence of many genes involved in P acquisition is elevated, suggesting that the ability to effectively access diverse P sources is advantageous for organisms inhabiting these regions. Prochlorococcus, the numerically dominant primary producer in the oligotrophic ocean, encodes high-affinity P transporters, P regulatory proteins and enzymes for organic phosphate utilization, but its ability to use reduced P compounds has not been previously demonstrated. Because Prochlorococcus strain MIT9301 encodes genes similar to phnY and phnZ, which constitute a novel marine bacterial 2-aminoethylphosphonate (2-AEPn) utilization pathway, it has been suggested that this organism might use 2-AEPn as an alternative P source. We show here that although MIT9301 was unable to use 2-AEPn as a sole P source under standard culture conditions, it was able to use phosphite. Phosphite utilization by MIT9301 appears to be mediated by an NAD-dependent phosphite dehydrogenase encoded by ptxD. We show that phosphite utilization genes are present in diverse marine microbes and that their abundance is higher in low-P waters. These results strongly suggest that phosphite represents a previously unrecognized component of the marine P cycle.