Open Access Research article

Convergent evolution of [D-Leucine1] microcystin-LR in taxonomically disparate cyanobacteria

Tânia Keiko Shishido1, Ulla Kaasalainen2, David P Fewer1, Leo Rouhiainen1, Jouni Jokela1, Matti Wahlsten1, Marli Fátima Fiore3, João Sarkis Yunes4, Jouko Rikkinen2 and Kaarina Sivonen1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Food and Environmental Sciences, Division of Microbiology and Biotechnology, University of Helsinki, Viikki Biocenter (Viikinkaari 9), P.O. Box 56, Helsinki, FIN-00014, Finland

2 Department of Biosciences, University of Helsinki, Viikki Biocenter (Viikinkaari 1), P.O. Box 65, Helsinki, FIN-00014, Finland

3 Center for Nuclear Energy in Agriculture, University of São Paulo, Avenida Centenário 303, Piracicaba, SP, 13400-970, Brazil

4 Unidade de Pesquisas em Cianobactérias, Federal University of Rio Grande, Av. Itália km 8 - Caixa Postal 474, Rio Grande, RS, 96.201-900, Brazil

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:86  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-86

Published: 19 April 2013



Many important toxins and antibiotics are produced by non-ribosomal biosynthetic pathways. Microcystins are a chemically diverse family of potent peptide toxins and the end-products of a hybrid NRPS and PKS secondary metabolic pathway. They are produced by a variety of cyanobacteria and are responsible for the poisoning of humans as well as the deaths of wild and domestic animals around the world. The chemical diversity of the microcystin family is attributed to a number of genetic events that have resulted in the diversification of the pathway for microcystin assembly.


Here, we show that independent evolutionary events affecting the substrate specificity of the microcystin biosynthetic pathway have resulted in convergence on a rare [D-Leu1] microcystin-LR chemical variant. We detected this rare microcystin variant from strains of the distantly related genera Microcystis, Nostoc, and Phormidium. Phylogenetic analysis performed using sequences of the catalytic domains within the mcy gene cluster demonstrated a clear recombination pattern in the adenylation domain phylogenetic tree. We found evidence for conversion of the gene encoding the McyA2 adenylation domain in strains of the genera Nostoc and Phormidium. However, point mutations affecting the substrate-binding sequence motifs of the McyA2 adenylation domain were associated with the change in substrate specificity in two strains of Microcystis. In addition to the main [D-Leu1] microcystin-LR variant, these two strains produced a new microcystin that was identified as [Met1] microcystin-LR.


Phylogenetic analysis demonstrated that both point mutations and gene conversion result in functional mcy gene clusters that produce the same rare [D-Leu1] variant of microcystin in strains of the genera Microcystis, Nostoc, and Phormidium. Engineering pathways to produce recombinant non-ribosomal peptides could provide new natural products or increase the activity of known compounds. Our results suggest that the replacement of entire adenylation domains could be a more successful strategy to obtain higher specificity in the modification of the non-ribosomal peptides than point mutations.

Adenylation domain; Phylogeny; Substrate specificity; Gene conversion; Point mutations; Recombination