Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Directional RNA deep sequencing sheds new light on the transcriptional response of Anabaena sp. strain PCC 7120 to combined-nitrogen deprivation

Britt L Flaherty1, F Van Nieuwerburgh2, Steven R Head3 and James W Golden1*

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Biological Sciences, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093-0116, USA

2 Laboratory of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, Ghent University, Harelbekestraat 72, 9000 Ghent, Belgium

3 Genomics Core Facility, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:332  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-332

Published: 28 June 2011



Cyanobacteria are potential sources of renewable chemicals and biofuels and serve as model organisms for bacterial photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and responses to environmental changes. Anabaena (Nostoc) sp. strain PCC 7120 (hereafter Anabaena) is a multicellular filamentous cyanobacterium that can "fix" atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia when grown in the absence of a source of combined nitrogen. Because the nitrogenase enzyme is oxygen sensitive, Anabaena forms specialized cells called heterocysts that create a microoxic environment for nitrogen fixation. We have employed directional RNA-seq to map the Anabaena transcriptome during vegetative cell growth and in response to combined-nitrogen deprivation, which induces filaments to undergo heterocyst development. Our data provide an unprecedented view of transcriptional changes in Anabaena filaments during the induction of heterocyst development and transition to diazotrophic growth.


Using the Illumina short read platform and a directional RNA-seq protocol, we obtained deep sequencing data for RNA extracted from filaments at 0, 6, 12, and 21 hours after the removal of combined nitrogen. The RNA-seq data provided information on transcript abundance and boundaries for the entire transcriptome. From these data, we detected novel antisense transcripts within the UTRs (untranslated regions) and coding regions of key genes involved in heterocyst development, suggesting that antisense RNAs may be important regulators of the nitrogen response. In addition, many 5' UTRs were longer than anticipated, sometimes extending into upstream open reading frames (ORFs), and operons often showed complex structure and regulation. Finally, many genes that had not been previously identified as being involved in heterocyst development showed regulation, providing new candidates for future studies in this model organism.


Directional RNA-seq data were obtained that provide comprehensive mapping of transcript boundaries and abundance for all transcribed RNAs in Anabaena filaments during the response to nitrogen deprivation. We have identified genes and noncoding RNAs that are transcriptionally regulated during heterocyst development. These data provide detailed information on the Anabaena transcriptome as filaments undergo heterocyst development and begin nitrogen fixation.