Microbial evolutionary surprises in the future ocean: Long-term adaptation of marine nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria to high CO2
The globally-distributed marine cyanobacterium Trichodesmium plays a key role in ocean biogeochemical cycles, as it is a major source of newly fixed atmospheric nitrogen to marine food webs. Trichodesmium N2 fixation rates have been shown to increase under expected future high carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in short-term studies due to physiological plasticity, but its long-term adaptive responses to ongoing anthropogenic CO2 increases are unknown. My lab has been carrying out a nearly decade-long experimental evolution study with Trichodesmium growing under selection by projected future elevated CO2 levels. Unexpectedly, selection under high CO2 results in large increases in nitrogen fixation and growth rates that appear to be irreversible, even after adapted cell lines are moved back to lower present day CO2 levels for hundreds of generations. This represents an unprecedented microbial evolutionary response, as reproductive fitness increases acquired in the selection environment are maintained even after returning to the ancestral environment. These constitutive rate increases are accompanied by irreversible shifts in diel nitrogen fixation patterns, up-regulation of cellular energetic pathways, elevated expression of non-coding intergenic DNA, and increased activity of a potentially regulatory DNA methyltransferase enzyme. Ongoing work in my lab is examining the consequences of multiple nutrient limitation interactions (iron and phosphorus) for the physiology, biochemistry and genetics of Trichodesmium adapted to growing in a more nutrient-limited, acidified future ocean environment.