Summary: Heterocysts of the cyanobacterium occur at the ends of the filaments. These cells, specialized for aerobic N fixation, synchronously differentiate after the fragmentation of filaments grown in a medium free of combined nitrogen. This study has examined the role of transcription during and after heterocyst differentiation. Autoradiography of intact filaments pre-labelled for 3 h with [H]uracil revealed that RNA synthesis occurred at similar rates in vegetative cells, developing (pro)heterocysts and mature heterocysts. Since mature heterocysts no longer divide and contain a similar amount of DNA as vegetative cells, transcription must continue under conditions where replication no longer occurs. Rifampicin, when added to fragmented filaments at concentrations that reduced RNA synthesis by 95% in all cell types, inhibited proheterocyst formation but not the final morphological step of differentiation (pore plug deposition). However, chloramphenicol blocked all stages of heterocyst differentiation. Since the average mRNA half-life was 29 min, and the rifampicin-insensitive stage lasted 3–6 h, the later stages of differentiation may depend on long-lived mRNAs.


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