Purdue University Graduate School
2023.5.8 Thiti Dissertation Final.pdf (8.59 MB)

Investigating the biochemical evolution and metabolic connections  of shikonin biosynthesis in Lithospermum erythrorhizon

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posted on 2023-05-08, 20:07 authored by Thiti SuttiyutThiti Suttiyut


Shikonin is 1,4-naphthoquinones produced exclusively in Boraginaceae species. The compound and its derivatives are predominantly made in roots where they function in mediating plant-plant (allelopathic) and plant-microbe interactions. Moreover, this compound has been a target for drug development due to its strong anti-cancer properties. Our genome assembly and analysis of Lithospermum erythrorhizon uncovered metabolic innovation events that contributed to the evolution of the shikonin biosynthesis. This metabolic innovation also reveals the evolutionary link between shikonin biosynthesis and ubiquinone biosynthesis, one of the central metabolism functions in aerobic cellular respiration. To explore additional links between these two pathways, we used a transcriptome-based network analysis which uncovered a shikonin gene network model that predicts strong associations between primary metabolic pathway genes and known shikonin biosynthesis genes, as well as links with uncharacterized genes. L. erythrorhizon geranyldiphosphate (GPP) synthase (LeGPPS) is one of the candidates predicted by the network analysis, of which encodes a cytoplasmic enzyme shown in vitro to produce GPP. Knocking down of LeGPPS in L. erythrorhizon hairy roots (LeGPPSi lines) results in reduced shikonin content. This result provides functional evidence that cytoplasmic LeGPPS supplies GPP precursor to the shikonin biosynthesis. LeGPPSi lines also increased ubiquinone content, further supporting our hypothesis on the metabolic and evolutionary connection between shikonin and ubiquinone biosynthesis. Further RNA-seq analysis of the LeGPPSi line showed that downregulating LeGPPS significantly reduces the expression of benzenoid/phenylpropanoid genes, indicating the presence of factors that coordinately regulate the pathways providing the 4-hydroxybenzoic acid and GPP precursors to the shikonin pathway. In addition to LeGPPS, we also found ubiquinone biosynthesis protein COQ4-like gene (LeCOQ4-L) which provided another evolutionary link between shikonin and ubiquinone biosynthesis. The enzymatic activity of canonical COQ4 is unknown. In yeast, the protein is essential for ubiquinone biosynthesis and its metabolon formation. With the existing connections between shikonin and ubiquinone biosynthesis, if LeCOQ4 functions in the same manner as yeast COQ4, it is possible that LeCOQ4-L has an analogous function in shikonin biosynthesis as a structural protein for stabilizing biosynthesis metabolon. This leads us to the characterization of COQ4 ortholog in Arabidopsis (AtCOQ4) to gain insight into its functional mechanism. Characterization of atcoq4 T-DNA mutant line showed that reduced AtCOQ4 expression resulted in reduced ubiquinone. Further subcellular localization study revealed that AtCOQ4 and LeCOQ4-L localize in mitochondria without conventional transit peptide. We also performed pull-down assay to identify AtCOQ4 interactors which might be the missing enzymes that cannot be identified based on homology. 80 potential AtCOQ4 interactors were found including proteins like AtCHLM, GRIM-19, and AtSSLs. However, further study is needed to verify the protein interactions captured by pull-down assay. Taken all together, our study sheds light on the metabolic innovations that give rise to shikonin biosynthesis from ubiquinone biosynthesis and provide insight into the dynamics of the metabolic networks.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Horticulture

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Joshua Widhalm

Additional Committee Member 2

Jennifer Wisecaver

Additional Committee Member 3

Natalia Dudareva

Additional Committee Member 4

Ying Li

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