Cellular Innovation of the Cyanobacterial Heterocyst by the Adaptive Loss of Plasticity

Scott R. Miller, Reid Longley, Patrick R. Hutchins, Thorsten Bauersachs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Cellular innovation is central to biological diversification, yet its underlying mechanisms remain poorly understood [1]. One potential source of new cellular traits is environmentally induced phenotypic variation, or phenotypic plasticity. The plasticity-first hypothesis [2–4] proposes that natural selection can improve upon an ancestrally plastic phenotype to produce a locally adaptive trait, but the role of plasticity for adaptive evolution is still unclear [5–10]. Here, we show that a structurally novel form of the heterocyst, the specialized nitrogen-fixing cell of the multicellular cyanobacterium Fischerella thermalis, has evolved multiple times from ancestrally plastic developmental variation during adaptation to high temperature. Heterocyst glycolipids (HGs) provide an extracellular gas diffusion barrier that protects oxygen-sensitive nitrogenase [11, 12], and cyanobacteria typically exhibit temperature-induced plasticity in HG composition that modulates heterocyst permeability [13, 14]. By contrast, high-temperature specialists of F. thermalis constitutively overproduce glycolipid isomers associated with high temperature to levels unattained by plastic strains. This results in a less-permeable heterocyst, which is advantageous at high temperature but deleterious at low temperature for both nitrogen fixation activity and fitness. Our study illustrates how the origin of a novel cellular phenotype by the genetic assimilation and adaptive refinement of a plastic trait can be a source of biological diversity and contribute to ecological specialization. Cellular innovation is central to biological diversification, but its mechanisms are poorly understood. Miller et al. show that a structurally novel nitrogen-fixing cell has evolved multiple times during high-temperature adaptation by the cyanobacterium Fischerella thermalis. Adaptation involved the loss and refinement of developmental variation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)344-350.e4
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 20 2020


  • adaptation
  • evolutionary cell biology
  • genetic assimilation
  • phenotypic plasticity
  • plasticity-first hypothesis
  • specialization


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