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Review
. 2018 May 24;5:13.
doi: 10.1186/s40694-018-0054-5. eCollection 2018.

How a Fungus Shapes Biotechnology: 100 Years of Aspergillus niger Research

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Free PMC article
Review

How a Fungus Shapes Biotechnology: 100 Years of Aspergillus niger Research

Timothy C Cairns et al. Fungal Biol Biotechnol. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

In 1917, a food chemist named James Currie made a promising discovery: any strain of the filamentous mould Aspergillus niger would produce high concentrations of citric acid when grown in sugar medium. This tricarboxylic acid, which we now know is an intermediate of the Krebs cycle, had previously been extracted from citrus fruits for applications in food and beverage production. Two years after Currie's discovery, industrial-level production using A. niger began, the biochemical fermentation industry started to flourish, and industrial biotechnology was born. A century later, citric acid production using this mould is a multi-billion dollar industry, with A. niger additionally producing a diverse range of proteins, enzymes and secondary metabolites. In this review, we assess main developments in the field of A. niger biology over the last 100 years and highlight scientific breakthroughs and discoveries which were influential for both basic and applied fungal research in and outside the A. niger community. We give special focus to two developments of the last decade: systems biology and genome editing. We also summarize the current international A. niger research community, and end by speculating on the future of fundamental research on this fascinating fungus and its exploitation in industrial biotechnology.

Keywords: Aspergillus niger; Biotechnology; Citric acid; Genome editing; Industrial biology; Systems biology.

Figures

Fig. 1
Fig. 1
A historical snapshot of A. niger research. The PubMed database was interrogated for any publication that contained ‘Aspergillus niger’ in the title. Publication titles were assigned to periods of 20 years. As 1917–1936 only returned 7 manuscripts, this period was omitted. Word clouds were generated online (https://worditout.com/word-cloud/create), and the top 20 words, not including ‘Aspergillus niger’ or non-technical terms (e.g. prepositions etc.), are depicted. Size of each word is proportional to relative frequency amongst all the titles in that period. Retrieved articles for each period: 112 (1937–1956), 481 (1957–1976), 642 (1977–1996), 1789 (1997–2017)
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Total number or paper published on PubMed for selected filamentous fungi over the last 40 years. The literature database was queried for title, abstract and keywords with the full species name (in brackets: total results for 1978–2017). As comparison: Saccharomyces cerevisiae gave more than 110,000 hits with around 2000–4000 hits/year over the last 25 years (Additional file 2: Table s2)
Fig. 3
Fig. 3
The A. niger research community is diverse and well-connected. Network of the community of researchers investigating A. niger biology or using the fungus as model organism based on our literature survey. Articles with ‘Aspergillus niger’ in title, abstract or keywords published in 2013–2017 were retrieved from PubMed. Scientists with at least 5 last (co-)authorships were selected (Additional file 3: Table 3). Size of circles roughly indicates number of published articles. Connections indicate collaborations as indicated by at least one co-authorship. Scientists are located mainly in Europe, followed by China, South America, North America, and India. The position of the circles is arbitrary. Please note that some connections/collaborations might be missing due to the stringency of our PubMed search
Fig. 4
Fig. 4
Predicting the next 20 years of A. niger research. Each author of this review independently predicted and independently weighted approximately 20 words that they hypothesize will commonly feature in future manuscript titles that also contain the words ‘Aspergillus niger’. The word cloud was generated online as described in Fig. 1

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