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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Module evolution and substrate specificity of fungal nonribosomal peptide synthetases involved in siderophore biosynthesis

Kathryn E Bushley1, Daniel R Ripoll2 and B Gillian Turgeon1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology, 334 Plant Science Building, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853, USA

2 Computational Biology Service Unit, Life Sciences Core Laboratories Center, Cornell University, 621 Frank HT Rhodes Hall, Hoy Road, Ithaca, NY, 14853 3801, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:328  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-328

Published: 3 December 2008



Most filamentous ascomycete fungi produce high affinity iron chelators called siderophores, biosynthesized nonribosomally by multimodular adenylating enzymes called nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPSs). While genes encoding the majority of NRPSs are intermittently distributed across the fungal kingdom, those encoding ferrichrome synthetase NRPSs, responsible for biosynthesis of ferrichrome siderophores, are conserved, which offers an opportunity to trace their evolution and the genesis of their multimodular domain architecture. Furthermore, since the chemistry of many ferrichromes is known, the biochemical and structural 'rules' guiding NRPS substrate choice can be addressed using protein structural modeling and evolutionary approaches.


A search of forty-nine complete fungal genome sequences revealed that, with the exception of Schizosaccharomyces pombe, none of the yeast, chytrid, or zygomycete genomes contained a candidate ferrichrome synthetase. In contrast, all filamentous ascomycetes queried contained at least one, while presence and numbers in basidiomycetes varied. Genes encoding ferrichrome synthetases were monophyletic when analyzed with other NRPSs. Phylogenetic analyses provided support for an ancestral duplication event resulting in two main lineages. They also supported the proposed hypothesis that ferrichrome synthetases derive from an ancestral hexamodular gene, likely created by tandem duplication of complete NRPS modules. Recurrent losses of individual domains or complete modules from this ancestral gene best explain the diversity of extant domain architectures observed. Key residues and regions in the adenylation domain pocket involved in substrate choice and for binding the amino and carboxy termini of the substrate were identified.


Iron-chelating ferrichrome synthetases appear restricted to fission yeast, filamentous ascomycetes, and basidiomycetes and fall into two main lineages. Phylogenetic analyses suggest that loss of domains or modules led to evolution of iterative biosynthetic mechanisms that allow flexibility in biosynthesis of the ferrichrome product. The 10 amino acid NRPS code, proposed earlier, failed when we tried to infer substrate preference. Instead, our analyses point to several regions of the binding pocket important in substrate choice and suggest that two positions of the code are involved in substrate anchoring, not substrate choice.