Purdue University Graduate School
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Genome Evolution and Specialized Metabolic Gene Innovation in the Medicinal Plant Lithospermum erythrorhizon and the Toxic Alga Prymnesium parvum

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posted on 2022-04-28, 06:21 authored by Robert P. AuberRobert P. Auber

Specialized metabolites are chemical tools produced by organisms to aid in their interaction with the surrounding environment. These diverse compounds can often function as metabolic weapons (e.g. antibiotics), structural components (e.g. lignins), or even attractants (e.g. flavonoids). Because of their frequent utilization in niche environments, specialized metabolite production is often lineage- or even species-specific. Therefore, knowledge between specialized metabolic systems is often nontransferable, which poses a major obstacle in the characterization of these bioactive and commercially relevant compounds. Beyond resolving the chemical composition of a specialized metabolite, the identification of responsible pathway genes and the evolutionary processes responsible for their formation is an arduous task. These gaps in knowledge are further widened by the lack of genomic resources available for specialized metabolite producing species. In this work, we present the genome assemblies of two organisms, each with unique specialized metabolic pathways: the Chinese medicinal plant Lithospermum erythrorhizon and the toxic golden alga Prymnesium parvum. Leveraging the predicted proteome of L. erythrorhizon, we investigated the evolutionary history of specialized metabolic genes responsible for the production of shikonin, a 1,4-naphthoquinone specialized metabolite. We identified a retrotransposition-mediated duplication event responsible for the creation of the core shikonin biosynthesis gene, PGT. In addition, we performed a global coexpression network analysis to identify regulatory and enzymatic gene candidates involved in the shikonin biosynthesis pathway. We also built phylogenetic trees of known and candidate shikonin genes to reveal patterns of lineage-specific gene duplication and retroduplication. Like plants, unicellular algae are known for their production of diverse, often toxic, specialized metabolites. However, these species are often enigmatic. For example, previous studies have documented large phenotypic variation in both toxin chemotypes and levels among different strains of P. parvum. To investigate the genetic basis of this variation, we generated near chromosome level assemblies of two P. parvum strains and performed a broad genome survey of thirteen additional strains. As a result, we identified a commonly studied reference strain, UTEX 2797, as a hybrid with two distinct subgenomes. We also provide evidence of significant variation in haploid genome size across the species. Collectively, these studies supply genetic resources for the future study of these organisms, as well as provide insight into the evolution of their specialized metabolic pathways.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Biochemistry

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Jennifer Wisecaver

Additional Committee Member 2

Brian Dilkes

Additional Committee Member 3

Clint Chapple

Additional Committee Member 4

Joshua Widhalm