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Getting to know bacteria with 'multiple personalities'

"Scientists have long considered cyanobacteria to have 'multiple personalities,' as it were," said Andrzej Joachimiak, who directs the Structural Biology Center (SBC) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. "They are unique creatures in that they form key components of so many different ecological processes."

Joachimiak and his colleagues at the SBC, the NIH-funded Midwest Center for Structural Genomics and the University of Chicago recently studied one particular phenomenon in cyanobacteria known as "heterocyst differentiation." Cyanobacteria cells group themselves into long filaments that can contain dozens and even hundreds of cells—and like in humans, not all cyanobacteria cells are born the same. While most cyanobacteria cells aid in photosynthesis, occasionally a cell is produced that transforms atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia in a process known as "nitrogen fixation."

"Photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation are two of the most important and ubiquitous biochemical environmental processes that we know of," Joachimiak said. "If we can understand and manipulate how these bacteria differentiate themselves, we can better use natural pathways to mimic natural processes for a wide number of different applications, including the potential creation of biofuels."

Heterocyst differentiation is controlled in cyanobacteria by a special protein known as HetR, which recognizes and binds to specific region of the bacteria's DNA. The action of HetR, in turn, is mediated by inhibitors that control how often a photosynthetic cell turns into a nitrogen-fixing one.
 
 

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