Response of cyanobacterial mats to ambient phosphate fluctuations: phosphorus cycling, polyphosphate accumulation and stoichiometric flexibility

Our findings highlight the critical role of polyP in Sodalinema stali-formed cyanobacterial mats, as it was dynamically accumulated and recycled during acclimation to P fluctuations.

Cellular response to progressive P starvation

Analogous to planktonic cyanobacteria, growth under low P availability could be sustained by recycling polyP, which acted as a primary P source (Fig. 2a) [16, 23, 24]. We further attribute the rapid reduction of easily dispensable cellular P-containing compounds to the substitution of cellular phospholipids with S- or N-containing membrane lipids to maintain growth at the onset of P stress (Fig. 2a) [15, 23]. However, the exhaustion of this easily dispensable P pool limited proliferation in Phase 2, and the metabolic strategy switched from a focus on growth towards maintenance (Fig. 5). The interpretation of prevailing cellular processes based on our results is graphically summarized and explained in detail below (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Schematic interpretation of cellular phosphorus (P) cycling in a cyanobacterial mat, based on significant changes of the monitored parameters (arbitrary units).

a At low P availability, initially contained polyphosphate (polyP) was recycled simultaneously with phosphate uptake to sustain growth at constant C:N:P ratios. Further proliferation at the onset of P stress in Phase 1 was sustained by mobilization of cellular P, e.g. phospholipids, which led to rapidly increasing C:N:P ratios. Severe P stress in Phase 2, indicated by increasing APase activity, prevented proliferation and photosynthesis, indicated by a loss of green chlorophyll pigments. PolyP accumulation by deficiency response occurs with severely increasing P stress, whereby globular DNA accumulation indicates the allocation of P contained in DNA into polyP. P re-addition to the P-stressed cells in Phase 3 triggered overplus uptake and narrow C:N:P ratios, transitioning to luxury uptake at higher C:N:P ratios following polyP recycling. b At high P availability, polyP in Phase 1 was accumulated by overplus uptake at narrow C:N:P ratios, transitioning to luxury uptake at higher C:N:P ratios during polyP recycling in Phase 2. P-deprivation in Phase 3 did not affect the cells, which we attributed to a sufficient amount of phosphate in the residual medium or within the biofilm matrix. Arrows indicate phosphorus transformation processes, whereby arrows pointing towards DNA represent cell growth. Yellow granules = polyP, blue granules = globular DNA spheres, P = phospholipids, S = substitute lipids.

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Severe P stress in Phase 2 was indicated by the colour change from green towards yellow-green (Fig. S1) and increasing APase activity (Fig. 2a). The colour change suggested the loss of photosynthetic pigments [40], but we could not clarify whether this occurred through active cellular pigment reduction or degradation of available chlorophyll e.g., by oxidation. The increasing APase activity (Fig. 2a) suggested that Sodalinema stali is capable of hydrolysing organic P [14]. Even though APase expression did not trigger proliferation, it likely hydrolysed a potentially available organic P pool, as increasing DIC, NH4 and decreasing pH indicated progressive decay and remineralisation of organic matter (Fig. 1a). This suggests that in analogous oligotrophic environments with often fluctuating conditions, the strategy has to be maximizing the utilization of external P sources contained in organic and inorganic sediment particles that get trapped in the EPS [41]. The sediment can contain large amounts of organic P [42] and the fluctuating physico-chemical gradients in the EPS matrix due to high daytime pH and low oxygen conditions at night, facilitate P desorption from metal oxides, leading to higher dissolved phosphate concentrations within the mat, compared to the overlying water body [3]. However, alternating redox conditions at the SWI could also trigger polyP release from benthic microorganisms to the sediments, where it could act as a P source for the benthic food-chain, or ultimately trigger the formation of mineral P phases [32], to sustainably remove P from the aquatic cycle. Either way, we suggest that polyP-containing cyanobacterial mats critically impact P fluxes at the SWI.

With persisting severe P stress and increasing APase activity in Phase 2, polyP accumulation as a deficiency response was observed (Fig. 2a), which has been reported from planktonic cyanobacteria of different habitats [24, 29, 23], as well as stream periphyton [28]. However, the reasons causing this deficiency response remain unresolved. In marine phytoplankton of the oligotrophic Sargasso Sea, Martin et al. [23] excluded that polyP-rich cells were in a perpetual overplus state with ‘undetectable’ pulses driving this state and suggested that polyP accumulation occurred as a cellular stress response. In other studies, reduced biosynthesis of P-rich rRNA coincided with deficiency responses [26, 28] and led to the suggestion that polyP accumulation at P concentrations below a certain threshold required for growth occurs because of P allocation changes away from growth and towards storage. Further, APase can hydrolytically cleave phosphate groups from nucleic acids and convert DNA-lipid-P to DNA-lipids, which were shown to self-assemble into globular lipid-based DNA micelles [43]. These preferentially anchor on cell membranes [44], and indeed, such DNA spheres were found to accumulate at the cell’s polar membranes in our experiments adjacent to polyP during deficiency response (Fig. 4a: Phase 2,c). Therefore, we suggest that intracellular P recovery by cleavage from P-rich DNA and reallocation to polyP, and potentially reduced rRNA synthesis [31], is also a strategy in benthic mats of Sodalinema stali as a response to severe P stress when P availability is too low to sustain growth. This supports the theory of a reallocation of resources away from growth towards flexibly available P and energy storage. Such direct intracellular P cycling could be beneficial to help retain P within the cyanobacterial population; while external P moieties such as dissolved organic P within the matrix can act as an additional P source, they are also likely to be subject to nutrient competition between cyanobacteria and other organisms inhabiting the matrix.

Such effects of potential interactions in terms of nutrient competition or provision between cyanobacteria and mutualistic microorganisms contained within the same EPS matrix are difficult to assess and we cannot exclude some potential effects on our results. However, mutualistic microorganisms that are naturally contained in many cyanobacterial or algal cultures are often critical for metacommunity functioning and hence, working with axenic mat-forming strains may even further falsify any obtained results. Furthermore, microscopic analyses revealed that Sodalinema always dominated the biomass and hence, it is here considered reasonable to work with a non-axenic culture.

Cellular response to a simulated P pulse

In P-deficient cells, the affinity of the P uptake system is typically increased to maximize P uptake for future pulses [13, 45]. The simulated P pulse to the P-stressed cells in Phase 3 led to a rapid increase of the cellular P content by 1260% relative to C within 3 days (Fig. 2a), whereby P was accumulated to a significant part as polyP, which is characteristic for overplus uptake [25]. Many different types of oligotrophic aquatic habitats experience only temporal P pulses, e.g., from redox changes at the benthic interface leading to P release from the sediment [32], storm run-off [28], upwelling [46], or excretions of aquatic animals [47]. The capability of microorganisms to immediately take up, store, and efficiently re-use this P by overplus uptake is hence of critical importance for a population to sustain a potential subsequent period of low P availability. Overplus uptake is typically accompanied by the overall slow growth of the population and cellular recovery from P starvation, including ultrastructural organization and recovery of the photosynthetic apparatus [48]. This took one week after re-feeding of P-starved Nostoc sp. PCC 7118 cells [48]—a timeframe very similar to the delayed onset of photosynthesis observed in our study, indicated by the elevated pH at day 9 (Fig. 1a). Regarding overplus-triggering mechanisms following P pulses, Solovochenko et al. [48] suggested that overplus uptake occurs due to a delayed down-regulation of high-affinity Pi transporters, which are active during P starvation, and emphasized the simultaneous advantage of osmotically inert polyP accumulation as a response to dramatically high phosphate concentrations in the cells. Even though APase levels declined following our experimental P re-addition, they were significantly elevated for at least 9 days (Fig. 2a). As our experimental design involved replacing the medium with APase-free, BG11 + medium after Phase 2, we assume that the APase detected in Phase 3 was actively produced, and we conclude that previously relevant, low-P response mechanisms are slowly disengaged with some sort of lag, even when ambient P is repleted. Following cellular recovery, Sodalinema now recycled stored polyP instead of further accumulating it during the transition from overplus-to luxury uptake, which was reflected in the increasing C:N:P molar ratios and decreasing polyP levels without significant additional phosphate uptake (Figs. 1a, 2a, 5).

Qualitative observations on polyP distribution

Most methods applied to analyse polyP in microorganisms are quantitative and do not contain information on its spatial distribution within a population. The here observed variable distribution of polyP between the cells during luxury uptake and deficiency response, as well as the retention of polyP in few individual filaments during polyP recycling in Phase 1 of the low P experiment (Fig. 4) suggests strategies of either slow growth with a retention of polyP, or of high growth with polyP recycling. This was also suggested for cells of a unicellular Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 population during overplus uptake [47]. In contrast, polyP in our experiment was distributed homogeneously between all cyanobacterial cells during overplus uptake (Fig. 4a: Phase 3, Fig. 4b: Phase 1). Yet, we are unaware of any polyP distribution study in multicellular or mat-forming cyanobacteria and hence, further mechanisms of interactions, e.g., cell-to-cell communication [49, 50], might also contribute to purposeful differentiation of cells or filaments within a common matrix.

In summary, our study shows that the mat-forming Sodalinema stali (1) is capable of luxury uptake, overplus uptake and deficiency response with a heterogenous polyP distribution during polyP recycling, luxury uptake and deficiency response, while (2) dynamically adjusting cellular P content to changing phosphate concentrations. (3) Proliferation is sustained under the expense of polyP, followed by P acquisition from other easily dispensable cellular P-containing compounds under the onset of P stress. (4) Further, biosynthetic allocation changes away from growth towards maintenance with relative polyP accumulation at the expense of P-rich DNA are conducted under severe P stress. Our findings demonstrate the extraordinary capabilities of mat-forming cyanobacteria to adapt their P acquisition strategies to strong P fluctuations. While lasting proliferation under P limitation requires the mobilization of additional P sources through regeneration of P from particulate matter, the transition to net P accumulation under excess ambient P is rapid and effective. Since current projections of climate and land use change include intensified pulses of P load to aquatic ecosystems [50], e.g., through external input from surplus of agriculture fertilizer, inefficient wastewater treatment plants, and internal loads via the mobilization of legacy P, these P ‘bioaccumulators’ could form an important component in P remediation by temporarily accumulating P within the mat, and synthesizing polyP that could ultimately stimulate the formation of mineral P phases to sustainably remove P from the aquatic cycle.

Source: Ecology -

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