Original Paper


, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 601-610

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

An inter-order horizontal gene transfer event enables the catabolism of compatible solutes by Colwellia psychrerythraea 34H

  • R. Eric CollinsAffiliated withDepartment of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill UniversityDepartment of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill UniversityInstitute of Marine Science, University of Alaska Fairbanks Email author 
  • , Jody W. DemingAffiliated withSchool of Oceanography, University of Washington


Colwellia is a genus of mostly psychrophilic halophilic Gammaproteobacteria frequently isolated from polar marine sediments and sea ice. In exploring the capacity of Colwellia psychrerythraea 34H to survive and grow in the liquid brines of sea ice, we detected a duplicated 37 kbp genomic island in its genome based on the abnormally high G + C content. This island contains an operon encoding for heterotetrameric sarcosine oxidase and is located adjacent to several genes used in the serial demethylation of glycine betaine, a compatible solute commonly used for osmoregulation, to dimethylglycine, sarcosine, and glycine. Molecular clock inferences of important events in the adaptation of C. psychrerythraea 34H to compatible solute utilization reflect the geological evolution of the polar regions. Validating genomic predictions, C. psychrerythraea 34H was shown to grow on defined media containing either choline or glycine betaine, and on a medium with sarcosine as the sole organic source of carbon and nitrogen. Growth by 8 of 9 tested Colwellia species on a newly developed sarcosine-based defined medium suggested that the ability to catabolize glycine betaine (the catabolic precursor of sarcosine) is likely widespread in the genus Colwellia. This capacity likely provides a selective advantage to Colwellia species in cold, salty environments like sea ice, and may have contributed to the ability of Colwellia to invade these extreme niches.


Compatible solutes Halophiles Psychrophiles Genomics