Molybdenum nitrogenase (Nif), which catalyzes the reduction of dinitrogen to ammonium, has modulated the availability of fixed nitrogen in the biosphere since early in Earth's history. Phylogenetic evidence indicates that oxygen (O2)-sensitive Nif emerged in an anaerobic archaeon and later diversified into an aerobic bacterium. Aerobic bacteria that fix N2 have adapted a number of strategies to protect Nif from inactivation by O2, including spatial and temporal segregation of Nif from O2 and respiratory consumption of O2. Here we report the complement of Nif-encoding genes in 189 diazotrophic genomes. We show that the evolution of Nif during the transition from anaerobic to aerobic metabolism was accompanied by both gene recruitment and loss, resulting in a substantial increase in the number of nif genes. While the observed increase in the number of nif genes and their phylogenetic distribution are strongly correlated with adaptation to utilize O2 in metabolism, the increase is not correlated with any of the known O2 protection mechanisms. Rather, gene recruitment appears to have been in response to selective pressure to optimize Nif synthesis to meet fixed N demands associated with aerobic productivity and to more efficiently regulate Nif under oxic conditions that favor protein turnover. Consistent with this hypothesis, the transition of Nif from anoxic to oxic environments is associated with a shift from posttranslational regulation in anaerobes to transcriptional regulation in obligate aerobes and facultative anaerobes. Given that fixed nitrogen typically limits ecosystem productivity, our observations further underscore the dynamic interplay between the evolution of Earth's oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon biogeochemical cycles.
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© 2015, American Society for Microbiology.