The central role of the host cell in symbiotic nitrogen metabolism

Sandy J. Macdonald, George G. Lin, Calum W. Russell, Gavin H. Thomas, Angela E. Douglas

Abstract

Symbiotic nitrogen recycling enables animals to thrive on nitrogen-poor diets and environments. It traditionally refers to the utilization of animal waste nitrogen by symbiotic micro-organisms to synthesize essential amino acids (EAAs), which are translocated back to the animal host. We applied metabolic modelling and complementary metabolite profiling to investigate nitrogen recycling in the symbiosis between the pea aphid and the intracellular bacterium Buchnera, which synthesizes EAAs. The results differ from traditional notions of nitrogen recycling in two important respects. First, aphid waste ammonia is recycled predominantly by the host cell (bacteriocyte) and not Buchnera. Host cell recycling is mediated by shared biosynthetic pathways for four EAAs, in which aphid transaminases incorporate ammonia-derived nitrogen into carbon skeletons synthesized by Buchnera to generate EAAs. Second, the ammonia substrate for nitrogen recycling is derived from bacteriocyte metabolism, such that the symbiosis is not a sink for nitrogenous waste from other aphid organs. Host cell-mediated nitrogen recycling may be general among insect symbioses with shared EAA biosynthetic pathways generated by the loss of symbiont genes mediating terminal reactions in EAA synthesis.

  • Received February 22, 2012.
  • Accepted March 29, 2012.
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