When deprived of essential nutrients, the non-diazotrophic cyanobacterium sp. strain PCC 7942 undergoes a proteolytic degradation of the phycobiliproteins, its major light-harvesting pigments. This process is known as chlorosis. This paper presents evidence that the degradation of phycobiliproteins is part of an acclimation process in which growing cells differentiate into non-pigmented cells able to endure long periods of starvation. The time course of degradation processes differs for various photosynthetic pigments, for photosystem I and photosystem II activities and is strongly influenced by the illumination and by the experimental conditions of nutrient deprivation. Under standard experimental conditions of combined nitrogen deprivation, three phases of the differentiation process can be defined. The first phase corresponds to the well-known phycobiliprotein degradation, in phase 2 the cells lose chlorophyll a prior to entering phase 3, the fully differentiated state, in which the cells are still able to regenerate pigmentation after the addition of nitrate to the culture. An analysis of the protein synthesis patterns by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis during nitrogen starvation indicates extensive differential gene expression, suggesting the operation of tight regulatory mechanisms.


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