Identification of nitrogen fixation genes in lactococcus isolated from maize using population genomics and machine learning

Shawn M. Higdon, Bihua C. Huang, Alan B. Bennett, Bart C. Weimer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sierra Mixe maize is a landrace variety from Oaxaca, Mexico, that utilizes nitrogen derived from the atmosphere via an undefined nitrogen fixation mechanism. The diazotrophic microbiota associated with the plant’s mucilaginous aerial root exudate composed of complex carbohydrates was previously identified and characterized by our group where we found 23 lactococci capable of biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) without containing any of the proposed essential genes for this trait (nifHDKENB). To determine the genes in Lactococcus associated with this phenotype, we selected 70 lactococci from the dairy industry that are not known to be diazotrophic to conduct a comparative population genomic analysis. This showed that the diazotrophic lactococcal genomes were distinctly different from the dairy isolates. Examining the pangenome followed by genome-wide association study and machine learning identified genes with the functions needed for BNF in the maize isolates that were absent from the dairy isolates. Many of the putative genes received an ‘unknown’ annotation, which led to the domain analysis of the 135 homologs. This revealed genes with molecular functions needed for BNF, including mucilage carbohydrate catabolism, glycan-mediated host adhesion, iron/siderophore utilization, and oxidation/reduction control. This is the first report of this pathway in this organism to underpin BNF. Consequently, we proposed a model needed for BNF in lactococci that plausibly accounts for BNF in the absence of the nif operon in this organism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2043
Pages (from-to)1-25
Number of pages25
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Biological nitrogen fixation
  • GWAS
  • Lactic acid bacteria
  • Lactococci
  • Lactococcus lactis
  • Maize
  • Pangenome
  • Plant/microbe association
  • Random forests

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Virology
  • Microbiology (medical)


Dive into the research topics of 'Identification of nitrogen fixation genes in lactococcus isolated from maize using population genomics and machine learning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this