Multiple sensors provide spatiotemporal oxygen regulation of gene expression in a Rhizobium-legume symbiosis.


Rutten PJ(1), Steel H(2), Hood GA(3), Ramachandran VK(1), McMurtry L(1), Geddes B(1), Papachristodoulou A(2), Poole PS(1).
Author information:
(1)Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.
(2)Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.
(3)Department of Molecular Microbiology, John Innes Centre, Norwich, United Kingdom.


Regulation by oxygen (O2) in rhizobia is essential for their symbioses with plants and involves multiple O2 sensing proteins. Three sensors exist in the pea microsymbiont Rhizobium leguminosarum Rlv3841: hFixL, FnrN and NifA. At low O2 concentrations (1%) hFixL signals via FxkR to induce expression of the FixK transcription factor, which activates transcription of downstream genes. These include fixNOQP, encoding the high-affinity cbb3-type terminal oxidase used in symbiosis. In free-living Rlv3841, the hFixL-FxkR-FixK pathway was active at 1% O2, and confocal microscopy showed hFixL-FxkR-FixK activity in the earliest stages of Rlv3841 differentiation in nodules (zones I and II). Work on Rlv3841 inside and outside nodules showed that the hFixL-FxkR-FixK pathway also induces transcription of fnrN at 1% O2 and in the earliest stages of Rlv3841 differentiation in nodules. We confirmed past findings suggesting a role for FnrN in fixNOQP expression. However, unlike hFixL-FxkR-FixK, Rlv3841 FnrN was only active in the near-anaerobic zones III and IV of pea nodules. Quantification of fixNOQP expression in nodules showed this was driven primarily by FnrN, with minimal direct hFixL-FxkR-FixK induction. Thus, FnrN is key for full symbiotic expression of fixNOQP. Without FnrN, nitrogen fixation was reduced by 85% in Rlv3841, while eliminating hFixL only reduced fixation by 25%. The hFixL-FxkR-FixK pathway effectively primes the O2 response by increasing fnrN expression in early differentiation (zones I-II). In zone III of mature nodules, near-anaerobic conditions activate FnrN, which induces fixNOQP transcription to the level required for wild-type nitrogen fixation activity. Modelling and transcriptional analysis indicates that the different O2 sensitivities of hFixL and FnrN lead to a nuanced spatiotemporal pattern of gene regulation in different nodule zones in response to changing O2 concentration. Multi-sensor O2 regulation is prevalent in rhizobia, suggesting the fine-tuned control this enables is common and maximizes the effectiveness of the symbioses.