Biological nitrogen fixation in aerobic organisms requires a mechanism for excluding oxygen from the site of nitrogenase activity. Oxygen exclusion in Frankia spp., members of an actinomycetal genus that forms nitrogen-fixing root-nodule symbioses in a wide range of woody Angiosperms, is accomplished within specialized structures termed vesicles, where nitrogen fixation is localized. The lipidic vesicle envelope is apparently a functional analogue of the cyanobacterial heterocyst envelope, forming an external gas-diffusion barrier around the nitrogen-fixing cells. We report here that purified vesicle envelopes consist primarily of two hopanoid lipids, rather than of glycolipids, as is the case in cyanobacteria. One envelope hopanoid, bacteriohopanetetrol phenylacetate monoester, is vesicle-specific. The Frankia vesicle envelope thus represents a layer specific to the locus of nitrogen fixation that is biosynthetically uniquely derived.
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