Carbonic anhydrase (CA) (EC 22.214.171.124) is a widespread enzyme catalyzing the reversible hydration of CO2 to bicarbonate, a reaction that participates in many biochemical and physiological processes. Mesorhizobium loti, the microsymbiont of the model legume Lotus japonicus, possesses on the symbiosis island a gene (msi040) encoding an α-type CA homologue, annotated as CAA1. In the present work, the CAA1 open reading frame from M. loti strain R7A was cloned, expressed, and biochemically characterized, and it was proven to be an active α-CA. The biochemical and physiological roles of the CAA1 gene in free-living and symbiotic rhizobia were examined by using an M. loti R7A disruption mutant strain. Our analysis revealed that CAA1 is expressed in both nitrogen-fixing bacteroids and free-living bacteria during growth in batch cultures, where gene expression was induced by increased medium pH. L. japonicus plants inoculated with the CAA1 mutant strain showed no differences in top-plant traits and nutritional status but consistently formed a higher number of nodules exhibiting higher fresh weight, N content, nitrogenase activity, and δ13C abundance. Based on these results, we propose that although CAA1 is not essential for nodule development and symbiotic nitrogen fixation, it may participate in an auxiliary mechanism that buffers the bacteroid periplasm, creating an environment favorable for NH3 protonation, thus facilitating its diffusion and transport to the plant. In addition, changes in the nodule δ13C abundance suggest the recycling of at least part of the HCO3− produced by CAA1
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