Chitin utilization by marine picocyanobacteria and the evolution of a planktonic lifestyle

Giovanna Capovilla, Rogier Braakman, Gregory P. Fournier, Thomas Hackl, Julia Schwartzman, Xinda Lu, Alexis Yelton, Krista Longnecker, Melissa C. Kido Soule, Elaina Thomas, Gretchen Swarr, Alessandro Mongera, Jack G. Payette, Kurt G Castro, Jacob Waldbauer, Elizabeth B. Kujawinski, Otto Cordero, Sallie W. Chisholm or Penny Chisholm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
61 Downloads (Pure)


Marine picocyanobacteria Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus, the most abundant photosynthetic cells in the oceans, are generally thought to have a primarily single-celled and free-living lifestyle. However, while studying the ability of picocyanobacteria to supplement photosynthetic carbon fixation with the use of exogenous organic carbon, we found the widespread occurrence of genes for breaking down chitin, an abundant source of organic carbon that exists primarily as particles. We show that cells that encode a chitin degradation pathway display chitin degradation activity, attach to chitin particles, and show enhanced growth under low light conditions when exposed to chitosan, a partially deacetylated soluble form of chitin. Marine chitin is largely derived from arthropods, which underwent major diversifications 520 to 535 Mya, close to when marine picocyanobacteria are inferred to have appeared in the ocean. Phylogenetic analyses confirm that the chitin utilization trait was acquired at the root of marine picocyanobacteria. Together this leads us to postulate that attachment to chitin particles allowed benthic cyanobacteria to emulate their mat-based lifestyle in the water column, initiating their expansion into the open ocean, seeding the rise of modern marine ecosystems. Subsequently, transitioning to a constitutive planktonic life without chitin associations led to cellular and genomic streamlining along a major early branch within Prochlorococcus. Our work highlights how the emergence of associations between organisms from different trophic levels, and their coevolution, creates opportunities for colonizing new environments. In this view, the rise of ecological complexity and the expansion of the biosphere are deeply intertwined processes.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2213271120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - 16-May-2023


Dive into the research topics of 'Chitin utilization by marine picocyanobacteria and the evolution of a planktonic lifestyle'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this