Molybdenum biogeochemistry in an evolutionary context: nitrogen assimilation, microbial storage and environmental budgets
Molybdenum (Mo) is a key trace nutrient for biological assimilation of nitrogen, either as nitrogen gas (N2) or nitrate (NO3-). Although Mo is the most abundant metal in seawater (105 nM), its concentration is low (<5 nM) in most freshwaters today, and it was scarce in the ocean before 600 million years ago. The use of Mo for nitrogen assimilation can be understood in terms of the changing Mo availability through time; for instance, the higher Mo content of eukaryotic vs. prokaryotic nitrate reductase may have stalled proliferation of eukaryotes in low-Mo Proterozoic oceans. Field and laboratory experiments were performed to study Mo requirements for NO3- assimilation and N2 fixation, respectively. Molybdenum-nitrate addition experiments at Castle Lake, California revealed interannual and depth variability in plankton community response, perhaps resulting from differences in species composition and/or ammonium availability. Furthermore, lake sediments were elevated in Mo compared to soils and bedrock in the watershed. Box modeling suggested that the largest source of Mo to the lake was particulate matter from the watershed. Month-long laboratory experiments with heterocystous cyanobacteria (HC) showed that <1 nM Mo led to low N2 fixation rates, while 10 nM Mo was sufficient for optimal rates. At 1500 nM Mo, freshwater HC hyperaccumulated Mo intercellularly, whereas coastal HC did not. These differences in storage capacity were likely due to the presence in freshwater HC of the small molybdate-binding protein, Mop, and its absence in coastal and marine cyanobacterial species. Expression of the mop gene was regulated by Mo availability in the freshwater HC species Nostoc sp. PCC 7120. Under low Mo (<1 nM) conditions, mop gene expression was up-regulated compared to higher Mo (150 and 3000 nM) treatments, but the subunit composition of the Mop protein changed, suggesting that Mop does not bind Mo in the same manner at <1 nM Mo that it can at higher Mo concentrations. These findings support a role for Mop as a Mo storage protein in HC and suggest that freshwater HC control Mo cellular homeostasis at the post-translational level. Mop's widespread distribution in prokaryotes lends support to the theory that it may be an ancient protein inherited from low-Mo Precambrian oceans.