Secondary metabolites, which are small-molecule organic compounds produced by living organisms, provide or inspire drugs for many different diseases. These natural products have evolved over millions of years to provide a survival benefit to the producing organism and often display potent biological activity with important therapeutic applications. For instance, defensive compounds in the environment may be cytotoxic to eukaryotic cells, a property exploitable for cancer treatment. Here, we describe the genome of an uncultured symbiotic bacterium that makes such a cytotoxic metabolite. This symbiont is losing genes that do not endow a selective advantage in a hospitable host environment. Secondary metabolism genes, however, are repeated multiple times in the genome, directly demonstrating their selective advantage. This finding shows the strength of selective forces in symbiotic relationships and suggests that uncultured bacteria in such relationships should be targeted for drug discovery efforts.
The uncultured bacterial symbiont “
Endobugula sertula” is known to produce cytotoxic compounds called bryostatins, which protect the larvae of its host,
. The symbiont has never been successfully cultured, and it was thought that its genome might be significantly reduced. Here, we took a shotgun metagenomics and metatranscriptomics approach to assemble and characterize the genome of “
. Endobugula sertula.” We found that it had specific metabolic deficiencies in the biosynthesis of certain amino acids but few other signs of genome degradation, such as small size, abundant pseudogenes, and low coding density. We also identified homologs to genes associated with insect pathogenesis in other gammaproteobacteria, and these genes may be involved in host-symbiont interactions and vertical transmission. Metatranscriptomics revealed that these genes were highly expressed in a reproductive host, along with
genes for the biosynthesis of bryostatins. We identified two new putative
genes fragmented from the main
operon, accounting for previously missing enzymatic functions in the pathway. We also determined that a gene previously assigned to the pathway,
, is not expressed in reproductive tissue, suggesting that it is not involved in the production of bryostatins. Our findings suggest that “
. Endobugula sertula” may be able to live outside the host if its metabolic deficiencies are alleviated by medium components, which is consistent with recent findings that it may be possible for “
. Endobugula sertula” to be transmitted horizontally.
The bryostatins are potent protein kinase C activators that have been evaluated in clinical trials for a number of indications, including cancer and Alzheimer's disease. There is, therefore, considerable interest in securing a renewable supply of these compounds, which is currently only possible through aquaculture of
and total chemical synthesis. However, these approaches are labor-intensive and low-yielding and thus preclude the use of bryostatins as a viable therapeutic agent. Our genome assembly and transcriptome analysis for “
. Endobugula sertula” shed light on the metabolism of this symbiont, potentially aiding isolation and culturing efforts. Our identification of additional
genes may also facilitate efforts to express the complete pathway heterologously.
Secondary metabolites are ubiquitous in bacteria, but by definition, they are thought to be nonessential. Highly toxic secondary metabolites such as patellazoles have been isolated from marine tunicates, where their exceptional potency and abundance implies a role in chemical defense, but their biological source is unknown. Here, we describe the association of the tunicate
with a symbiotic α-proteobacterium,
Endolissoclinum faulkneri, and present chemical and biological evidence that the bacterium synthesizes patellazoles. We sequenced and assembled the complete
. E. faulkneri genome, directly from metagenomic DNA obtained from the tunicate, where it accounted for 0.6% of sequence data. We show that the large patellazoles biosynthetic pathway is maintained, whereas the remainder of the genome is undergoing extensive streamlining to eliminate unneeded genes. The preservation of this pathway in streamlined bacteria demonstrates that secondary metabolism is an essential component of the symbiotic interaction.