Examining the evolution of the regulatory circuit controlling secondary metabolism and development in the fungal genus Aspergillus

PLoS Genet. 2015 Mar 18;11(3):e1005096. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1005096. eCollection 2015 Mar.


Filamentous fungi produce diverse secondary metabolites (SMs) essential to their ecology and adaptation. Although each SM is typically produced by only a handful of species, global SM production is governed by widely conserved transcriptional regulators in conjunction with other cellular processes, such as development. We examined the interplay between the taxonomic narrowness of SM distribution and the broad conservation of global regulation of SM and development in Aspergillus, a diverse fungal genus whose members produce well-known SMs such as penicillin and gliotoxin. Evolutionary analysis of the 2,124 genes comprising the 262 SM pathways in four Aspergillus species showed that most SM pathways were species-specific, that the number of SM gene orthologs was significantly lower than that of orthologs in primary metabolism, and that the few conserved SM orthologs typically belonged to non-homologous SM pathways. RNA sequencing of two master transcriptional regulators of SM and development, veA and mtfA, showed that the effects of deletion of each gene, especially veA, on SM pathway regulation were similar in A. fumigatus and A. nidulans, even though the underlying genes and pathways regulated in each species differed. In contrast, examination of the role of these two regulators in development, where 94% of the underlying genes are conserved in both species showed that whereas the role of veA is conserved, mtfA regulates development in the homothallic A. nidulans but not in the heterothallic A. fumigatus. Thus, the regulation of these highly conserved developmental genes is divergent, whereas-despite minimal conservation of target genes and pathways-the global regulation of SM production is largely conserved. We suggest that the evolution of the transcriptional regulation of secondary metabolism in Aspergillus represents a novel type of regulatory circuit rewiring and hypothesize that it has been largely driven by the dramatic turnover of the target genes involved in the process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aspergillus / classification
  • Aspergillus / genetics*
  • Aspergillus / metabolism*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genome, Fungal
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways*