Open Access Open Badges Research article

Recent transfer of an iron-regulated gene from the plastid to the nuclear genome in an oceanic diatom adapted to chronic iron limitation

Markus Lommer1, Alexandra-Sophie Roy1, Markus Schilhabel2, Stefan Schreiber2, Philip Rosenstiel2 and Julie LaRoche1*

Author affiliations

1 Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University IFM-GEOMAR, Kiel, Germany

2 Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology, Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel, Kiel, Germany

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Citation and License

BMC Genomics 2010, 11:718  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-718

Published: 20 December 2010



Although the importance and widespread occurrence of iron limitation in the contemporary ocean is well documented, we still know relatively little about genetic adaptation of phytoplankton to these environments. Compared to its coastal relative Thalassiosira pseudonana, the oceanic diatom Thalassiosira oceanica is highly tolerant to iron limitation. The adaptation to low-iron conditions in T. oceanica has been attributed to a decrease in the photosynthetic components that are rich in iron. Genomic information on T. oceanica may shed light on the genetic basis of the physiological differences between the two species.


The complete 141790 bp sequence of the T. oceanica chloroplast genome [GenBank: GU323224], assembled from massively parallel pyrosequencing (454) shotgun reads, revealed that the petF gene encoding for ferredoxin, which is localized in the chloroplast genome in T. pseudonana and other diatoms, has been transferred to the nucleus in T. oceanica. The iron-sulfur protein ferredoxin, a key element of the chloroplast electron transport chain, can be replaced by the iron-free flavodoxin under iron-limited growth conditions thereby contributing to a reduction in the cellular iron requirements. From a comparison to the genomic context of the T. pseudonana petF gene, the T. oceanica ortholog can be traced back to its chloroplast origin. The coding potential of the T. oceanica chloroplast genome is comparable to that of T. pseudonana and Phaeodactylum tricornutum, though a novel expressed ORF appears in the genomic region that has been subjected to rearrangements linked to the petF gene transfer event.


The transfer of the petF from the cp to the nuclear genome in T. oceanica represents a major difference between the two closely related species. The ability of T. oceanica to tolerate iron limitation suggests that the transfer of petF from the chloroplast to the nuclear genome might have contributed to the ecological success of this species.