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Conserved Amino Acid Sequence Features in the α  Subunits of MoFe, VFe, and FeFe Nitrogenases

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This study examines the structural features and phylogeny of the α subunits of 69 full-length NifD (MoFe subunit), VnfD (VFe subunit), and AnfD (FeFe subunit) sequences.

Methodology/Principal Findings:

The analyses of this set of sequences included BLAST scores, multiple sequence alignment, examination of patterns of covariant residues, phylogenetic analysis and comparison of the sequences flanking the conserved Cys and His residues that attach the FeMo cofactor to NifD and that are also conserved in the alternative nitrogenases. The results show that NifD nitrogenases fall into two distinct groups. Group I includes NifD sequences from many genera within Bacteria, including all nitrogen-fixing aerobes examined, as well as strict anaerobes and some facultative anaerobes, but no archaeal sequences. In contrast, Group II NifD sequences were limited to a small number of archaeal and bacterial sequences from strict anaerobes. The VnfD and AnfD sequences fall into two separate groups, more closely related to Group II NifD than to Group I NifD. The pattern of perfectly conserved residues, distributed along the full length of the Group I and II NifD, VnfD, and AnfD, confirms unambiguously that these polypeptides are derived from a common ancestral sequence.


There is no indication of a relationship between the patterns of covariant residues specific to each of the four groups discussed above that would give indications of an evolutionary pathway leading from one type of nitrogenase to another. Rather the totality of the data, along with the phylogenetic analysis, is consistent with a radiation of Group I and II NifDs, VnfD and AnfD from a common ancestral sequence. All the data presented here strongly support the suggestion made by some earlier investigators that the nitrogenase family had already evolved in the last common ancestor of the Archaea and Bacteria.

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