Beneficial Prokaryotes

Cooperation between Bacteria and Eukaryotes: Nitrogen Fixation

Nitrogen is a very important element to living things, because it is part of nucleotides and amino acids that are the building blocks of nucleic acids and proteins, respectively. Nitrogen is usually the most limiting element in terrestrial ecosystems, with atmospheric nitrogen, N2, providing the largest pool of available nitrogen. However, eukaryotes cannot use atmospheric, gaseous nitrogen to synthesize macromolecules. Fortunately, nitrogen can be “fixed,” meaning it is converted into a more accessible form—ammonia (NH3)—either biologically or abiotically.

Abiotic nitrogen fixation occurs as a result of physical processes such as lightning or by industrial processes. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is exclusively carried out by prokaryotes: soil bacteria, cyanobacteria, and Frankia spp. (filamentous bacteria interacting with actinorhizal plants such as alder, bayberry, and sweet fern). After photosynthesis, BNF is the most important biological process on Earth. The overall nitrogen fixation equation below represents a series of redox reactions (Pi stands for inorganic phosphate).

N 2  + 16ATP + 8e  + 8H +    2NH 3  + 16ADP + 16Pi + H 2

The total fixed nitrogen through BNF is about 100 to 180 million metric tons per year, which contributes about 65 percent of the nitrogen used in agriculture.

Cyanobacteria are the most important nitrogen fixers in aquatic environments. In soil, members of the genera Clostridium and Azotobacter are examples of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Other bacteria live symbiotically with legume plants, providing the most important source of fixed nitrogen. Symbionts may fix more nitrogen in soils than free-living organisms by a factor of 10. Soil bacteria, collectively called rhizobia, are able to symbiotically interact with legumes to form nodules, specialized structures where nitrogen fixation occurs (Figure). Nitrogenase, the enzyme that fixes nitrogen, is inactivated by oxygen, so the nodule provides an oxygen-free area for nitrogen fixation to take place. The oxygen is sequestered by a form of plant hemoglobin called leghemoglobin, which protects the nitrogenase, but releases enough oxygen to support respiratory activity.

Symbiotic nitrogen fixation provides a natural and inexpensive plant fertilizer: It reduces atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, which is easily usable by plants. The use of legumes is an excellent alternative to chemical fertilization and is of special interest to sustainable agriculture, which seeks to minimize the use of chemicals and conserve natural resources. Through symbiotic nitrogen fixation, the plant benefits from using an endless source of nitrogen: the atmosphere. The bacteria benefit from using photosynthates (carbohydrates produced during photosynthesis) from the plant and having a protected niche. In addition, the soil benefits from being naturally fertilized. Therefore, the use of rhizobia as biofertilizers is a sustainable practice.

Why are legumes so important? Some, like soybeans, are key sources of agricultural protein. Some of the most important legumes consumed by humans are soybeans, peanuts, peas, chickpeas, and beans. Other legumes, such as alfalfa, are used to feed cattle.

This photo shows a legume root, which is thin and yellow with nodules sticking out of it.
Nitrogen-fixation nodules on soybean roots. Soybean (Glycine max) is a legume that interacts symbiotically with the soil bacterium Bradyrhizobium japonicum to form specialized structures on the roots called nodules where nitrogen fixation occurs. (credit: USDA)

Everyday Connection

Microbes on the Human Body

The commensal bacteria that inhabit our skin and gastrointestinal tract do a host of good things for us. They protect us from pathogens, help us digest our food, and produce some of our vitamins and other nutrients. These activities have been known for a long time. More recently, scientists have gathered evidence that these bacteria may also help regulate our moods, influence our activity levels, and even help control weight by affecting our food choices and absorption patterns. The Human Microbiome Project has begun the process of cataloging our normal bacteria (and archaea) so we can better understand these functions.

A particularly fascinating example of our normal flora relates to our digestive systems. People who take high doses of antibiotics tend to lose many of their normal gut bacteria, allowing a naturally antibiotic-resistant species called Clostridium difficile to overgrow and cause severe gastric problems, especially chronic diarrhea (Figure). Obviously, trying to treat this problem with antibiotics only makes it worse. However, it has been successfully treated by giving the patients fecal transplants from healthy donors to reestablish the normal intestinal microbial community. Clinical trials are underway to ensure the safety and effectiveness of this technique.

Micrograph shows small clusters of white rod-shaped bacteria against a dark background.
Clostridium difficile. This scanning electron micrograph shows Clostridium difficile, a Gram-positive, rod-shaped bacterium that causes severe diarrhea. Infection commonly occurs after the normal gut fauna are eradicated by antibiotics, and in the hospital can be deadly to seriously ill patients. (credit: modification of work by CDC, HHS; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Scientists are also discovering that the absence of certain key microbes from our intestinal tract may set us up for a variety of problems. This seems to be particularly true regarding the appropriate functioning of the immune system. There are intriguing findings that suggest that the absence of these microbes is an important contributor to the development of allergies and some autoimmune disorders. Research is currently underway to test whether adding certain microbes to our internal ecosystem may help in the treatment of these problems, as well as in treating some forms of autism.