Denitrification ability is sporadically distributed among diverse bacteria, archaea, and fungi. In addition, disagreement has been found between denitrification gene phylogenies and the 16S rRNA gene phylogeny. These facts have suggested potential occurrences of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) for the denitrification genes. However, evidence of HGT has not been clearly presented thus far. In this study, we identified the sequences and the localization of the nitrite reductase genes in the genomes of 41 denitrifying Azospirillum sp. strains and searched for mobile genetic elements that contain denitrification genes. All Azospirillum sp. strains examined in this study possessed multiple replicons (4 to 11 replicons), with their sizes ranging from 7 to 1,031 kbp. Among those, the nitrite reductase gene nirK was located on large replicons (549 to 941 kbp). Genome sequencing showed that Azospirillum strains that had similar nirK sequences also shared similar nir-nor gene arrangements, especially between the TSH58, Sp7T, and Sp245 strains. In addition to the high similarity between nir-nor gene clusters among the three Azospirillum strains, a composite transposon structure was identified in the genome of strain TSH58, which contains the nir-nor gene cluster and the novel IS6 family insertion sequences (ISAz581 and ISAz582). The nirK gene within the composite transposon system was actively transcribed under denitrification-inducing conditions. Although not experimentally verified in this study, the composite transposon system containing the nir-nor gene cluster could be transferred to other cells if it is moved to a prophage region and the phage becomes activated and released outside the cells. Taken together, strain TSH58 most likely acquired its denitrification ability by HGT from closely related Azospirillum sp. denitrifiers.IMPORTANCE The evolutionary history of denitrification is complex. While the occurrence of horizontal gene transfer has been suggested for denitrification genes, most studies report circumstantial evidences, such as disagreement between denitrification gene phylogenies and the 16S rRNA gene phylogeny. Based on the comparative genome analyses of Azospirillum sp. denitrifiers, we identified denitrification genes, including nirK and norCBQD, located on a mobile genetic element in the genome of Azospirillum sp. strain TSH58. The nirK was actively transcribed under denitrification-inducing conditions. Since this gene was the sole nitrite reductase gene in strain TSH58, this strain most likely benefitted by acquiring denitrification genes via horizontal gene transfer. This finding will significantly advance our scientific knowledge regarding the ecology and evolution of denitrification. Copyright © 2019 American Society for Microbiology.
Journal: Applied and environmental microbiology