SAR11 lipid renovation in response to phosphate starvation

Paul Carini, Benjamin A.S. Van Mooy, J. Cameron Thrash, Angelicque White, Yanlin Zhao, Emily O. Campbell, Helen F. Fredricks, Stephen J. Giovannoni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


Phytoplankton inhabiting oligotrophic ocean gyres actively reduce their phosphorus demand by replacing polar membrane phospholipids with those lacking phosphorus. Although the synthesis of nonphosphorus lipids is well documented in some heterotrophic bacterial lineages, phosphorus-free lipid synthesis in oligotrophic marine chemoheterotrophs has not been directly demonstrated, implying they are disadvantaged in phosphate-deplete ecosystems, relative to phytoplankton. Here, we show the SAR11 clade chemoheterotroph Pelagibacter sp. str. HTCC7211 renovates membrane lipids when phosphate starved by replacing a portion of its phospholipids with monoglucosyl- and glucuronosyl-diacylglycerols and by synthesizing new ornithine lipids. Lipid profiles of cells grown with excess phosphate consisted entirely of phospholipids. Conversely, up to 40% of the total lipids were converted to nonphosphorus lipids when cells were starved for phosphate, or when growing on methylphosphonate. Cells sequentially limited by phosphate and methylphosphonate transformed >75% of their lipids to phosphorus-free analogs. During phosphate starvation, a four-gene cluster was significantly up-regulated that likely encodes the enzymes responsible for lipid renovation. These genes were found in Pelagibacterales strains isolated from a phosphate-deficient ocean gyre, but not in other strains from coastal environments, suggesting alternate lipid synthesis is a specific adaptation to phosphate scarcity. Similar gene clusters are found in the genomes of other marine α-proteobacteria, implying lipid renovation is a common strategy used by heterotrophic cells to reduce their requirement for phosphorus in oligotrophic habitats.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7767-7772
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number25
StatePublished - Jun 23 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Cyanobacteria
  • Glucuronic acid
  • Lipids
  • Marine phosphorus cycle
  • Methylphosphonate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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