Background: The role of coastal nutrient sources in the persistence of Karenia brevis red tides in coastal waters of Florida is a contentious issue that warrants investigation into the regulation of nutrient responses in this dinoflagellate. In other phytoplankton studied, nutrient status is reflected by the expression levels of N- and P-responsive gene transcripts. In dinoflagellates, however, many processes are regulated post-transcriptionally. All nuclear encoded gene transcripts studied to date possess a 5' trans-spliced leader (SL) sequence suggestive, based on the trypanosome model, of post-transcriptional regulation. The current study therefore sought to determine if the transcriptome of K. brevis is responsive to nitrogen and phosphorus and is informative of nutrient status.Results: Microarray analysis of N-depleted K. brevis cultures revealed an increase in the expression of transcripts involved in N-assimilation (nitrate and ammonium transporters, glutamine synthetases) relative to nutrient replete cells. In contrast, a transcriptional signal of P-starvation was not apparent despite evidence of P-starvation based on their rapid growth response to P-addition. To study transcriptome responses to nutrient addition, the limiting nutrient was added to depleted cells and changes in global gene expression were assessed over the first 48 hours following nutrient addition. Both N- and P-addition resulted in significant changes in approximately 4% of genes on the microarray, using a significance cutoff of 1.7-fold and p ≤ 10-4. By far, the earliest responding genes were dominated in both nutrient treatments by pentatricopeptide repeat (PPR) proteins, which increased in expression up to 3-fold by 1 h following nutrient addition. PPR proteins are nuclear encoded proteins involved in chloroplast and mitochondria RNA processing. Correspondingly, other functions enriched in response to both nutrients were photosystem and ribosomal genes.Conclusions: Microarray analysis provided transcriptomic evidence for N- but not P-limitation in K. brevis. Transcriptomic responses to the addition of either N or P suggest a concerted program leading to the reactivation of chloroplast functions. Even the earliest responding PPR protein transcripts possess a 5' SL sequence that suggests post-transcriptional control. Given the current state of knowledge of dinoflagellate gene regulation, it is currently unclear how these rapid changes in such transcript levels are achieved.
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