Tracing the path of a prokaryotic paracrine signal.
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Filamentous heterocyst-forming cyanobacteria are a beautiful example of prokaryotic multicellularity. The filaments can achieve simultaneous nitrogen fixation and oxygenic photosynthesis by cooperation between two cell types: the photosynthetic vegetative cells and the nitrogen-fixing heterocysts. The multicellular features exhibited by the system include differentiation of different cell types, metabolic interdependence and even pattern formation, as the spacing of heterocysts along the filament is non-random. Recent years have seen exciting progress both in understanding the control of heterocyst differentiation, and also in understanding the function of 'septal junctions': an array of pore-like structures at the cell junctions that allow intercellular communication by facilitating the diffusion of small molecules from cell to cell. A new report by Rivers et al. (2014) makes the connection between pattern formation and intercellular communication by showing that a mutation that partially disables the septal junctions leads to a decrease in the range of a signal dependent on the HetN protein that is one of the factors controlling heterocyst spacing. This suggests that the signal travels from cell to cell by diffusion through the septal junctions, opening the door to quantitative understanding of the mechanism that controls heterocyst spacing in filamentous cyanobacteria.