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SCIENCE – PatB is a transcriptional activator required for nitrogen fixation and cell differentiation in cyanobacteria.

Under nitrogen-limiting conditions, the filamentous cyanobacterium Nostoc PCC7120 differentiates nitrogen-fixing heterocysts at semi-regular intervals along filaments generating a periodic pattern of two distinct cell types. Heterocysts are micro-oxic cells that host the oxygen-sensitive nitrogenase allowing two antagonistic activities to take place simultaneously. Although several factors required to control the differentiation process are known, the molecular mechanisms engaged have only been elucidated for a few of them. The patB (cnfR) gene has been shown to be essential for heterocyst formation and nitrogen fixation in this cyanobacterium, but its function remains to be clarified. Here, we show that PatB acts as a direct transcriptional regulator of genes required for nitrogenase production and activity. The DNA-binding activity of PatB does not depend on micro-oxia as it interacts with its target promoters under aerobic conditions both in vitro and in vivo. The absence of the DNA-binding domain of PatB can be rescued in the heterocyst but not in the vegetative cell. Furthermore, the putative ferredoxin domain of PatB is not essential to its interaction with DNA. The patB gene is widely conserved in cyanobacterial genomes and its function can be pleiotropic since it is not limited to nitrogen fixation control.