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Algae acquire vitamin B12 through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria


Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) was identified nearly 80 years ago as the anti-pernicious anaemia factor in liver1, and its importance in human health and disease has resulted in much work on its uptake2, cellular transport3 and utilization4. Plants do not contain cobalamin because they have no cobalamin-dependent enzymes. Deficiencies are therefore common in strict vegetarians5, and in the elderly, who are susceptible to an autoimmune disorder that prevents its efficient uptake6. In contrast, many algae are rich in vitamin B12, with some species, such as Porphyra yezoensis (Nori), containing as much cobalamin as liver7. Despite this, the role of the cofactor in algal metabolism remains unknown, as does the source of the vitamin for these organisms. A survey of 326 algal species revealed that 171 species require exogenous vitamin B12 for growth, implying that more than half of the algal kingdom are cobalamin auxotrophs. Here we show that the role of vitamin B12 in algal metabolism is primarily as a cofactor for vitamin B12-dependent methionine synthase, and that cobalamin auxotrophy has arisen numerous times throughout evolution, probably owing to the loss of the vitamin B12-independent form of the enzyme. The source of cobalamin seems to be bacteria, indicating an important and unsuspected symbiosis.

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Figure 1: RT–PCR analysis of genes involved in vitamin B 12 metabolism.
Figure 2: Effect of vitamin B12 deprivation on the green alga L. rostrata.
Figure 3: Interactions between bacteria and algae grown in co-culture.

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We thank C. Howe, S. Purton, S. Beale and D. Vernon for the donation of algal strains, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) of the UK for the award of an earmarked studentship to M.T.C., the European Union Viteomics Research Training Network for funding and for providing a forum for discussions, and Queen Mary University of London for providing a studentship to A.D.L. Author Contributions This work is the result of a collaboration between the laboratories of M.J.W. and A.G.S. through the joint earmarked studentship for M.T.C.

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Correspondence to Alison G. Smith.

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Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Methods

This file contains additional details of methods used in this study. (DOC 99 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

A list of all the algae in the survey. (PDF 160 kb)

Supplementary Figure 1

This figure shows growth data for the red alga Porphyridium purpureum. (PDF 84 kb)

Supplementary Figure 2

This figure shows growth data for the dinoflagellate Amphidinium operculatum. (PDF 84 kb)

Supplementary Figure 3

This figure shows growth data for the Euglenoid Euglena gracilis. (PDF 91 kb)

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Croft, M., Lawrence, A., Raux-Deery, E. et al. Algae acquire vitamin B12 through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Nature 438, 90–93 (2005).

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