The cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as the 'blue-green algae', were one of the first groups of bacteria to be recognised as distinct. As our knowledge of bacteria has improved over the years, the distinctiveness of cyanobacteria continues to be supported: they are the only bacteria to contain chlorophyll, capturing energy from the light through the oxidation of water. Unfortunately, this confidence in their separation has not necessarily been carried over at lower levels. Many cyanobacterial 'families' and 'genera' have not been supported by more recent molecular analyses. Nevertheless, one clade that has been well supported is the nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria, Hormogoneae.
Morphology-based classifications of cyanobacteria started, firstly, with the question of whether a species existed as independent cells, or whether they formed thread-like chains. The Hormogoneae are all chain-forming species, with the chain contained within a but they are also distinguished by the formation of heterocysts, large morphologically distinct cells within the chain that specialise in nitrogen fixation. Heterocysts are so specialised that they are unable to photosynthesise for themselves and are dependent on their neighbour cells for nutrition. So, with the presence of differentiated, interdependent cells, Hormogoneae can be regarded not simply as colonies of cells but as true, multicellular bacteria. A number of species of Hormogoneae (particularly in the genus Nostoc) form symbiotic associations with plants that take advantage of their nitrogen-fixing properties. One of the best-known examples is the association of the aquatic floating fern Azolla with the cyanobacterium 'Anabaena' azollae, and Azolla is used as a source of nitrogen in rice paddies. In another post, I have described the association between a Nostoc species and the plant genus Gunnera.
Within the Hormogoneae, classifications have traditionally distinguished between the orders Nostocales and Stigonematales. Stigonematales have branching trichomes, while those of Nostocales are unbranched. The Nostocales have been divided between the Nostocaceae, Rivulariaceae and Scytonemataceae: Rivulariaceae have trichomes that show a distinct base-to-apex polarity, while those of Scytonemataceae show a feature called 'false branching'*. Nostocaceae are defined by the lack of these features: however, it should not be surprising that molecular studies have not supported a group defined solely by the absence of characters, and both Rivulariaceae and Scytonemataceae (and possibly Stigonematales as well) are probably derived (possibly polyphyletically) from 'nostocacean' ancestors. However, actual relationships within the Hormogoneae remain poorly resolved, and no formal reclassification has been proposed (one of the authoritative texts on bacterial classification, Bergey's Manual of Systematic Bacteriology, replaces the cyanobacterial 'orders' with numbered subsections [Nostocales, for instance, is treated as Cyanobacteria subsection IV]—Castenholz 2001).
*True branching as in Stigonematales occurs when cells within a trichome divide at right angles to the direction of the trichome. In 'false branching', the trichome breaks within the containing sheath and then grows out of the sheath, but the division of the individual cells remains linear.
Phylogenetic analyses have also failed to confirm many of the genera recognised within the Nostocaceae (treated by Bergey's Manual as 'form-genera' only), distinguished by features such as whether trichomes are generally straight or coiled, and the positions within the trichome of heterocysts and other specialised cells called akinetes, thick-walled cells that function as resistent spores. The traditional genus Nostoc also differs from other Nostocaceae by the formation of hormogonia, motile trichomes with smaller cells and without differentiated heterocysts. Hormogonia form the dispersal stage of the Nostoc life cycle; it is as hormogonia, for instance, that symbiotic Nostoc are transmitted to new hosts. Mature Nostoc trichomes are embedded in a gelatinous matrix, and in some species this matrix may form a globular ball containing large numbers of radially arranged trichomes. Though usually microscopic, these globular clusters can get very large, sometimes more than twenty centimetres in diameter. Species attributed to other genera of Nostocaceae do not generally produce differentiated hormogonia (though some do, such as the aforementioned Anabaena azollae). Trichomes of these species may remain motile throughout the life cycle, or they may be permanently immotile (the latter state is characteristic of planktonic species).
Castenholz, R. W. 2001. Phylum BX. Cyanobacteria. Oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria. In: Boone, D. R., & R. W. Castenholz (eds) Bergey's Manual of Systematic Bacteriology 2nd ed., vol. 1, pp. 473-599. Springer.