July 19, 2019  |  

Variable genetic architectures produce virtually identical molecules in bacterial symbionts of fungus-growing ants.

Small molecules produced by Actinobacteria have played a prominent role in both drug discovery and organic chemistry. As part of a larger study of the actinobacterial symbionts of fungus-growing ants, we discovered a small family of three previously unreported piperazic acid-containing cyclic depsipeptides, gerumycins A-C. The gerumycins are slightly smaller versions of dentigerumycin, a cyclic depsipeptide that selectively inhibits a common fungal pathogen, Escovopsis. We had previously identified this molecule from a Pseudonocardia associated with Apterostigma dentigerum, and now we report the molecule from an associate of the more highly derived ant Trachymyrmex cornetzi. The three previously unidentified compounds, gerumycins A-C, have essentially identical structures and were produced by two different symbiotic Pseudonocardia spp. from ants in the genus Apterostigma found in both Panama and Costa Rica. To understand the similarities and differences in the biosynthetic pathways that produced these closely related molecules, the genomes of the three producing Pseudonocardia were sequenced and the biosynthetic gene clusters identified. This analysis revealed that dramatically different biosynthetic architectures, including genomic islands, a plasmid, and the use of spatially separated genetic loci, can lead to molecules with virtually identical core structures. A plausible evolutionary model that unifies these disparate architectures is presented.


July 19, 2019  |  

Herbivorous turtle ants obtain essential nutrients from a conserved nitrogen-recycling gut microbiome.

Nitrogen acquisition is a major challenge for herbivorous animals, and the repeated origins of herbivory across the ants have raised expectations that nutritional symbionts have shaped their diversification. Direct evidence for N provisioning by internally housed symbionts is rare in animals; among the ants, it has been documented for just one lineage. In this study we dissect functional contributions by bacteria from a conserved, multi-partite gut symbiosis in herbivorous Cephalotes ants through in vivo experiments, metagenomics, and in vitro assays. Gut bacteria recycle urea, and likely uric acid, using recycled N to synthesize essential amino acids that are acquired by hosts in substantial quantities. Specialized core symbionts of 17 studied Cephalotes species encode the pathways directing these activities, and several recycle N in vitro. These findings point to a highly efficient N economy, and a nutritional mutualism preserved for millions of years through the derived behaviors and gut anatomy of Cephalotes ants.


July 19, 2019  |  

High-quality genome assemblies reveal long non-coding RNAs expressed in ant brains.

Ants are an emerging model system for neuroepigenetics, as embryos with virtually identical genomes develop into different adult castes that display diverse physiology, morphology, and behavior. Although a number of ant genomes have been sequenced to date, their draft quality is an obstacle to sophisticated analyses of epigenetic gene regulation. We reassembled de novo high-quality genomes for two ant species, Camponotus floridanus and Harpegnathos saltator. Using long reads enabled us to span large repetitive regions and improve genome contiguity, leading to comprehensive and accurate protein-coding annotations that facilitated the identification of a Gp-9-like gene as differentially expressed in Harpegnathos castes. The new assemblies also enabled us to annotate long non-coding RNAs in ants, revealing caste-, brain-, and developmental-stage-specific long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) in Harpegnathos. These upgraded genomes, along with the new gene annotations, will aid future efforts to identify epigenetic mechanisms of phenotypic and behavioral plasticity in ants. Copyright © 2018 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


July 7, 2019  |  

Formicamycins, antibacterial polyketides produced by Streptomyces formicae isolated from African Tetraponera plant-ants.

We report a new Streptomyces species named S. formicae that was isolated from the African fungus-growing plant-ant Tetraponera penzigi and show that it produces novel pentacyclic polyketides that are active against MRSA and VRE. The chemical scaffold of these compounds, which we have called the formicamycins, is similar to the fasamycins identified from the heterologous expression of clones isolated from environmental DNA, but has significant differences that allow the scaffold to be decorated with up to four halogen atoms. We report the structures and bioactivities of 16 new molecules and show, using CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing, that biosynthesis of these compounds is encoded by a single type 2 polyketide synthase biosynthetic gene cluster in the S. formicae genome. Our work has identified the first antibiotic from the Tetraponera system and highlights the benefits of exploring unusual ecological niches for new actinomycete strains and novel natural products.


July 7, 2019  |  

Selvamicin, an atypical antifungal polyene from two alternative genomic contexts.

The bacteria harbored by fungus-growing ants produce a variety of small molecules that help maintain a complex multilateral symbiosis. In a survey of antifungal compounds from these bacteria, we discovered selvamicin, an unusual antifungal polyene macrolide, in bacterial isolates from two neighboring ant nests. Selvamicin resembles the clinically important antifungals nystatin A1 and amphotericin B, but it has several distinctive structural features: a noncationic 6-deoxymannose sugar at the canonical glycosylation site and a second sugar, an unusual 4-O-methyldigitoxose, at the opposite end of selvamicin’s shortened polyene macrolide. It also lacks some of the pharmacokinetic liabilities of the clinical agents and appears to have a different target. Whole genome sequencing revealed the putative type I polyketide gene cluster responsible for selvamicin’s biosynthesis including a subcluster of genes consistent with selvamicin’s 4-O-methyldigitoxose sugar. Although the selvamicin biosynthetic cluster is virtually identical in both bacterial producers, in one it is on the chromosome, in the other it is on a plasmid. These alternative genomic contexts illustrate the biosynthetic gene cluster mobility that underlies the diversity and distribution of chemical defenses by the specialized bacteria in this multilateral symbiosis.


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