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Anabaena sperica
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Bacteria
Division: Cyanobacteria

The taxonomy of the
Cyanobacteria is currently
under revision. see this journal entry

Cyanobacteria (Greek: κυανόs (kyanós) = blue + bacterium) also known as Cyanophyta is a phylum (or "division") of Bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis. They are often still referred to as blue-green algae, although they are in fact prokaryotes like bacteria. The description is primarily used to reflect their appearance and ecological role rather than their evolutionary lineage. Fossil traces of cyanobacteria have been found from around 3.8 billion years ago (b.y.a.). See: Stromatolite. They are a major primary producer in the planetary ocean. Their ability to perform oxygenic (plant-like) photosynthesis is thought to have converted the early reducing atmosphere into an oxidizing one, which dramatically changed the life forms on Earth and provoked an explosion of biodiversity. See: Oxygen Catastrophe.


Cyanobacteria are found in almost every conceivable habitat, from oceans to fresh water to bare rock to soil. They may be single-celled or colonial. Colonies may form filaments, sheets or even hollow balls. Cyanobacteria include unicellular, colonial, and filamentous forms. Some filamentous colonies show the ability to differentiate into three different cell types: vegetative cells are the normal, photosynthetic cells that are formed under favorable growing conditions; akinetes are the climate-resistant spores that may form when environmental conditions become harsh; and thick-walled heterocysts that contain the enzyme nitrogenase, vital for nitrogen fixation, that may also form under the appropriate environmental conditions (anoxic) wherever nitrogen is necessary. Heterocyst-forming species are specialized for nitrogen fixation and are able to fix nitrogen gas, which cannot be used by plants, into ammonia (Template:Nh3), nitrites (Template:No2-) or nitrates (Template:No3-), which can be absorbed by plants and converted to protein and nucleic acids. The rice paddies of Asia, which feed about 75% of the world's human population[citation needed], could not do so were it not for healthy populations of nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria in the rice paddy waters.

Each individual cell typically has a thick, gelatinous cell wall, which stains gram-negative. They lack flagella, but may move about by gliding along surfaces. In water column, some of them float due to the ability to form gas vesicles, like in archaea. Most are found in fresh water, while others are marine, occur in damp soil, or even temporarily moistened rocks in deserts. A few are endosymbionts in lichens, plants, various protists, or sponges and provide energy for the host. Some live in the fur of sloths, providing a form of camouflage.


Cyanobacteria have an elaborate and highly organized system of internal membranes which function in photosynthesis. Photosynthesis in cyanobacteria generally uses water as an electron donor and produces oxygen as a by-product, though some may also use hydrogen sulfide as occurs among other photosynthetic bacteria. Carbon dioxide is reduced to form carbohydrates via the Calvin cycle. In most forms the photosynthetic machinery is embedded into folds of the cell membrane, called thylakoids. The large amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere are considered to have been first created by the activities of ancient cyanobacteria. Due to their ability to fix nitrogen in aerobic conditions they are often found as symbionts with a number of other groups of organisms such as fungi (lichens), corals, pteridophytes (Azolla), angiosperms (Gunnera) etc.

Cyanobacteria are the only group of organisms that are able to reduce nitrogen and carbon in aerobic conditions, a fact that may be responsible for their evolutionary and ecological success. The water-oxidizing photosynthesis is accomplished by coupling the activity of photosystem (PS) II and I (Z-scheme). In anaerobic conditions, they are also able to use only PS I — cyclic photophosphorylation — with electron donors other than water (hydrogen sulfide, thiosulphate, or even molecular hydrogen) just like purple photosynthetic bacteria. Furthermore, they share an archaebacterial property, which is the ability to reduce elemental sulfur by anaerobic respiration in the dark. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about these organisms is that their photosynthetic electron transport shares the same compartment as the components of respiratory electron transport. Actually, their plasma membrane contains only components of the respiratory chain, while the thylakoid membrane hosts both respiratory and photosynthetic electron transport.

Attached to thylakoid membrane, phycobilisomes act as light harvesting antennae for the photosystems . The phycobilisome components (phycobiliproteins) are responsible for the blue-green pigmentation of most cyanobacteria. The variations to this theme is mainly due to carotenoids and phycoerythrins which give the cells the red-brownish coloration. In some cyanobacteria, the color of light influences the composition of phycobilisomes. In green light, the cells accumulate more phycoerythrin, whereas in red light they produce more phycocyanin. Thus the bacteria appear green in red light and red in green light. This process is known as complementary chromatic adaptation and is a way for the cells to maximize the use of available light for photosynthesis.

A few genera, however, lack phycobilisomes and have chlorophyll b instead (Prochloron, Prochlorococcus, Prochlorothrix). These were originally grouped together as the prochlorophytes or chloroxybacteria, but appear to have developed in several different lines of cyanobacteria. For this reason they are now considered as part of cyanobacterial group.

Relationship to chloroplasts

Chloroplasts found in eukaryotes (algae and higher plants) likely evolved from an endosymbiotic relation with cyanobacteria. This endosymbiotic theory is supported by various structural and genetic similarities. Primary chloroplasts are found among the green plants, where they contain chlorophyll b, and among the red algae and glaucophytes, where they contain phycobilins. It now appears that these chloroplasts probably had a single origin, in an ancestor of the clade called Primoplantae. Other algae likely took their chloroplasts from these forms by secondary endosymbiosis or ingestion.

It was once thought that the mitochondria in eukaryotes also developed from an endosymbiotic relationship with cyanobacteria; however, we now know that this evolutionary event occurred when aerobic Eubacteria were engulfed by anaerobic host cells. Mitochondria are believed to have originated not from cyanobacteria but from an ancestor of Rickettsia.


The cyanobacteria were traditionally classified by morphology into five sections, referred to by the numerals I-V. The first three - Chroococcales, Pleurocapsales, and Oscillatoriales - are not supported by phylogenetic studies. However, the latter two - Nostocales and Stigonematales - are monophyletic, and make up the heterocystous cyanobacteria. The members of Chroococales are unicellular and usually aggregated in colonies. The classic taxonomic criterion has been the cell morphology and the plane of cell division. In Pleurocapsales, the cells have the ability to form internal spores (baeocytes). The rest of the sections include filamentous species. In Oscillatorialles, the cells are uniseriately arranged and do not form specialized cells (akinets and heterocysts). In Nostocalles and Stigonematalles the cells have the ability to develop heterocysts in certain conditions. Stigonematales, unlike Nostocalles include species with truly branched trichome. Most taxa included in the phylum or division Cyanobacteria have not yet been validly published under the Bacteriological Code. Except:

Biotechnology and applications

Certain cyanobacteria produce cyanotoxins like Anatoxin-a, Anatoxin-as, Aplysiatoxin, Cylindrospermopsin, Domoic acid, Microcystin LR, Nodularin R (from Nodularia), or Saxitoxin. Sometimes a mass-reproduction of cyanobacteria results in algal blooms.

The unicellular cyanobacterium Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 was the first photosynthetic organism whose genome was completely sequenced (in 1996, by the Kazusa Research Institute, Japan). It continues to be an important model organism.

At least one secondary metabolite, cyanovirin, has shown to possess anti-HIV activity.

See hypolith for an example of cyanobacteria living in extreme conditions.

Some cyanobacteria are sold as food, notably Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (E3live) and Arthrospira platensis (Spirulina). It has been suggested that they could be a much more substantial part of human food supplies, as a kind of superfood.

Along with algae, some hydrogen producing cyanobacteria are being considered as an alternative energy source, notably at Oregon State University, in research supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Princeton University, and the Colorado School of Mines.

Health Risks

Some species of cyanobacteria produce neurotoxins, hepatotoxins, cytotoxins, and endotoxins, making them dangerous to animals and humans. Several cases of human poisoning have been documented but a lack of knowledge prevents an accurate assessment of the risks.[1] [2]

See also


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