Signatures of nitrogen limitation in the elemental composition of the proteins involved in the metabolic apparatus

Claudia Acquisti, Sudhir Kumar, James J. Elser

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30 Scopus citations


Nitrogen (N) is a fundamental component of nucleotides and amino acids and is often a limiting nutrient in natural ecosystems. Thus, study of the N content of biomolecules may establish important connections between ecology and genomics. However, while significant differences in the elemental composition of whole organisms are well documented, how the flux of nutrients in the cell has shaped the evolution of different cellular processes remains poorly understood. By examining the elemental composition of major functional classes of proteins in four multicellular eukaryotic model organisms, we find that the catabolic machinery shows substantially lower N content than the anabolic machinery and the rest of the proteome. This pattern suggests that ecological selection for N conservation specifically targets cellular components that are highly expressed in response to nutrient limitation. We propose that the RNA component of the anabolic machineries is the mechanistic force driving the elemental imbalance we found, and that RNA functions as an intracellular nutrient reservoir that is degraded and recycled during starvation periods. A comparison of the elemental composition of the anabolic and catabolic machineries in species that have experienced different levels of N limitation in their evolutionary history (animals versus plants) suggests that selection for N conservation has preferentially targeted the catabolic machineries of plants, resulting in a lower N content of the proteins involved in their catabolic processes. These findings link the composition of major cellular components to the environmental factors that trigger the activation of those components, suggesting that resource availability has constrained the atomic composition and the molecular architecture of the biotic processes that enable cells to respond to reduced nutrient availability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2605-2610
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1667
StatePublished - Jul 22 2009


  • Biological stoichiometry
  • Cellular components
  • Elemental composition
  • Metabolic apparatus
  • Molecular evolution
  • Nutrient limitation


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