Cyanothece sp. strain PCC 7822 is a unicellular, diazotrophic cyanobacterium that can produce large quantities of H2 when grown diazotrophically. This strain is also capable of genetic manipulations and can represent a good model for improving H2 production from cyanobacteria. To this end, a knockout mutation was made in the hupL gene (ΔhupL), and we determined how this would affect the amount of H2 produced. The ΔhupL mutant demonstrated virtually no nitrogenase activity or H2 production when grown under N2-fixing conditions. To ensure that this mutation only affected the hupL gene, a complementation strain was constructed readily with wild-type properties; this indicated that the original insertion was only in hupL. The mutant had no uptake hydrogenase activity but had increased bidirectional hydrogenase (Hox) activity. Western blotting and immunocytochemistry under the electron microscope indicated that the mutant had neither HupL nor NifHDK, although the nif genes were transcribed. Interestingly, biochemical analysis demonstrated that both HupL and NifH could be membrane associated. The results indicated that the nif genes were transcribed but that NifHDK was either not translated or was translated but rapidly degraded. We hypothesized that the Nif proteins were made but were unusually susceptible to O2 damage. Thus, we grew the mutant cells under anaerobic conditions and found that they grew well under N2-fixing conditions. We conclude that in unicellular diazotrophs, like Cyanothece sp. strain PCC 7822, the HupLS complex helps remove oxygen from the nitrogenase, and that this is a more important function than merely oxidizing the H2 produced by the nitrogenase.
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