Cyanobacteria cultured in specific media. Cyanobacteria can be helpful in agriculture as they have the capability to fix atmospheric nitrogen to soil.
Cyanobacteria include unicellular and colonial species. Colonies may form filaments, sheets or even hollow balls. Some filamentous colonies show the ability to differentiate into several different cell types: vegetative cells, the normal, photosynthetic cells that are formed under favorable growing conditions; akinetes, the climate-resistant spores that may form when environmental conditions become harsh; and thick-walled heterocysts, which contain the enzyme nitrogenase, vital for nitrogen fixation. Heterocysts may also form under the appropriate environmental conditions (anoxic) when fixed nitrogen is scarce. Heterocyst-forming species are specialized for nitrogen fixation and are able to fix nitrogen gas into ammonia (NH3), nitrites (NO−
2) or nitrates (NO−
3) which can be absorbed by plants and converted to protein and nucleic acids (atmospheric nitrogen is not bioavailable to plants).
Rice plantations utilize healthy populations of nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria (Anabaena, as symbiotes of the aquatic fern Azolla) for use as rice paddy fertilizer.
Cyanobacteria are arguably the most successful group of microorganisms on earth. They are the most genetically diverse; they occupy a broad range of habitats across all latitudes, widespread in freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and they are found in the most extreme niches such as hot springs, salt works, and hypersaline bays. Photoautotrophic, oxygen-producing cyanobacteria created the conditions in the planet's early atmosphere that directed the evolution of aerobic metabolism and eukarotic photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria fulfill vital ecological functions in the world's oceans, being important contributors to global carbon and nitrogen budgets.