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  • Genetic, molecular, and biochemical basisof fungal tropolone biosynthesisJack Davisona, Ahmed al Fahada, Menghao Caib, Zhongshu Songa, Samar Y. Yehiac, Colin M. Lazarusd,Andrew M. Baileyd, Thomas J. Simpsona, and Russell J. Coxa,1

    aUniversity of Bristol, School of Chemistry, Cantocks Close, Bristol BS8 1TS, United Kingdom; bState Key Laboratory of Bioreactor Engineering, East ChinaUniversity of Science and Technology, Meilong Road 130, Shanghai 200237, China; cFuture University in Egypt, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences andPharmaceutical Industries, New Cairo, Egypt 11477; and dUniversity of Bristol, School of Biological Sciences, Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1UG, UnitedKingdom

    Edited by Jerrold Meinwald, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, and approved February 28, 2012 (received for review January 27, 2012)

    A gene cluster encoding the biosynthesis of the fungal tropolonestipitatic acid was discovered in Talaromyces stipitatus (Penicilliumstipitatum) and investigated by targeted gene knockout. A mini-mum of three genes are required to form the tropolone nucleus:tropA encodes a nonreducing polyketide synthase which releases3-methylorcinaldehyde; tropB encodes a FAD-dependent mono-oxygenase which dearomatizes 3-methylorcinaldehyde via hydro-xylation at C-3; and tropC encodes a non-heme Fe(II)-dependentdioxygenase which catalyzes the oxidative ring expansion to thetropolone nucleus via hydroxylation of the 3-methyl group. The tro-pA gene was characterized by heterologous expression in Aspergil-lus oryzae, whereas tropB and tropC were successfully expressed inEscherichia coli and the purified TropB and TropC proteins converted3-methylorcinaldehyde to a tropolone in vitro. Finally, knockoutof the tropD gene, encoding a cytochrome P450 monooxygenase,indicated its place as the next gene in the pathway, probably respon-sible for hydroxylation of the 6-methyl group. Comparison of theT. stipitatus tropolone biosynthetic cluster with other known geneclusters allows clarification of important steps during the biosynth-esis of other fungal compounds including the xenovulenes, citrinin,sepedonin, sclerotiorin, and asperfuranone.

    oxidative rearrangement azaphilone colchicine

    In 1942 Harold Raistrick and coworkers working in Londonreported the isolation of the fungal metabolite stipitatic acid(C8H6O5) 1 from Penicillium stipitatum (1). They wrote that inspite of the large amount of experimental work which has beencarried out on this substance, we have been unable up to thepresent to deduce an entirely satisfactory structural formula forit. In typically understated wartime style they continued, themolecular constitution of stipitatic acid must therefore remain forthe time being unsolved since, because of prevailing conditions, ithas become necessary to postpone further work on the subject.

    Regardless of the undoubtedly difficult prevailing conditions*(2), the structure of 1 was an inherently difficult problem. Thisproblem was solved in 1945 by Michael Dewar who realized thatthe aromatic properties of 1 could be explained if an unprece-dented type of nonbenzenoid aromatic system was invoked (3).Later Alexander Todd and coworkers provided the chemicalproof for this hypothesis (4). Dewar named this seven-memberedring system tropolone and its discovery contributed strongly todeveloping ideas about aromaticity and bonding in organic chem-istry (5). Indeed the study of tropolones and related nonbenzenoidaromatic systems contributed strongly to the development of thetheoretical basis underpinning organic chemistry during the latterpart of the 20th century. Stipitatic acid 1 and other fungal tropo-lones continue to stimulate interestfor example, puberulic acid 2(5-hydroxy stipitatic acid, also discovered by Raistrick) (6) pos-sesses potent antiplasmodial activity (IC50 10 ngmL1) and is cur-rently a promising lead candidate as an antimalarial drug (7).

    The biosynthesis of 1 and related compounds in fungi hasalso attracted much interest; as early as 1950, for example, Robert

    Robinson proposed that tropolones could be derived by thecondensation of polyhydric phenols with formaldehyde or its bio-logical equivalent (8). However, experimental support for thishypothesis did not come until 1963 when Ronald Bentley used14C labeling to show that the precursors of 1 are acetate, malo-nate, and a C1 unit (9). Later studies showed that 3-methylorci-naldehyde 3 (and, less effectively, 3-methyl orsellinic acid) is aprecursor of 1 (Scheme 1) (10). Feeding experiments using stableisotopic labels have shown that a single oxygen atom derived fromatmospheric O2 becomes incorporated into the tropolone skele-ton during ring expansion. This observation is inconsistent with amechanism in which the aromatic ring is first cleaved by a dioxy-genase followed by CC bond formation to form a tropolonebecause, if this were the case, then two atoms of oxygen wouldbe retained in the product (route B, Scheme 1) (11). Thus theproposed model involves formation of the hydroxymethyl inter-mediate 4 by an unspecified mechanism coupled to a pinacol-typerearrangement (route A, Scheme 1). The later steps of stipitaticacid 1 biosynthesis were hypothesized to proceed via stipitalide 5(12), stipitaldehydic acid 6, and stipitatonic acid 7 (Scheme 1)(13). Our recent work has shown that 3-methylorcinaldehyde 3is the direct product of a fungal nonreducing polyketide synthase(NR-PKS) which most likely appends the methyl group fromS-adenosyl methionine during biosynthesis of the tetraketide(14), and which uses a reductive release mechanism to producethe observed aldehyde (15).

    No intermediates between 3-methylorcinaldehyde 3 and stipi-talide 5 have been observed, and the molecular mechanisms andenzymes responsible for the ring-expansion step remain obscure.The mechanism of the oxidative ring expansion which forms thefungal tropolone nucleus has thus remained one of the longest-standing puzzles in the study of natural product biosynthesis.

    ResultsIn initial work, we grew Talaromyces stipitatus (Penicillium stipita-tum) under tropolone-producing conditions and observed theproduction of 1, 5, and 6 as well as methyl stipitate 8 (Fig. 1A).

    In previous work, we showed that the Acremonium strictum gene,

    Author contributions: C.M.L., A.M.B., T.J.S., and R.J.C. designed research; J.D., A.a.F., M.C.,Z.S., and S.Y.Y. performed research; J.D. and R.J.C. analyzed data; and R.J.C. wrote thepaper.

    The authors declare no conflict of interest.

    This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

    See Commentary on page 7589.

    *The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where Raistrick was based, wasbombed on the night of May 10, 1941, destroying much of the building.

    The structure of 8 was confirmed by full high-resolution MS, NMR, and X-ray crystalstructure determination. This compound has not previously been reported as a metabo-lite of T. stipitatus. It arises by reaction of stipitatonic acid 7 with methanol during theextraction procedure.

    1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email:

    This article contains supporting information online at

    76427647 PNAS May 15, 2012 vol. 109 no. 20

  • aspks1, encodes an NR-PKS known as methylorcinaldehydesynthase (MOS), which synthesizes 3-methylorcinaldehyde 3using a reductive release domain (R) (14, 15). 3-Methylorcinal-dehyde 3 is a known precursor of tropolones in T. stipitatus (10),so we began by searching the publicly available genome sequenceof T. stipitatus for biosynthetic gene clusters featuring an NR-PKSgene homologous to aspks1. BLASTsearching revealed four suchclusters (see SI Appendix). One of these consisted of 11 openreading frames centered on a fungal NR-PKS gene (tspks1,TSTA_117750) encoding a protein of 294 kD. Protein domainanalysis revealed a domain structure consistent with the produc-tion of methylorcinaldehydei.e., starter unit acyl transferase,ketoacylsynthase, acyl transferase, product template, acyl carrierprotein, C-methyl transferase, and acyl CoA thiolester reductasedomains (Fig. 1) (16) with overall identity of 38.7% (51.9% simi-larity) to MOS from A. strictum. To confirm its role in tropolonebiosynthesis, and thus the likely role of the gene cluster, we per-formed a knockout experiment using the duplex-KO method ofNielsen and coworkers (17) with a bleomycin selection markerfrom Streptomyces verticillus (18). Of nine selected transformants,four were shown to be deficient in tropolone biosynthesis by liquidchromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) (Fig. 1B)furthergenetic experiments showed that in all cases the bleomycin resis-tance cassette had successfully integrated into the tspks1 gene.

    The tspks1 gene was then cloned into a vector allowing hetero-logous expression in the fungal host Aspergillus oryzae using theinducible amyB promoter (PamyB). Two variants were con-structed: The first contained the genomic sequence of tspks1; thesecond contained tspks1 lacking the 74 bp intron and with egfpfused in-frame at the 3 terminus. A. oryzae transformants con-taining each of these vectors were grown in the presence of amy-lose which induces PamyB. The transformants containing tspks1with its intron produced no new compounds vs. untransformedA. oryzae. However

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