Background: Thraustochytrids are unicellular fungal-like marine protists with ubiquitous existence in marine environments. They are well-known for their ability to produce high-valued omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (ω-3-PUFAs) (e.g., docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)) and hydrolytic enzymes. Thraustochytrid biomass has been estimated to surpass that of bacterioplankton in both coastal and oceanic waters indicating they have an important role in microbial food-web. Nevertheless, the molecular pathway and regulatory network for PUFAs production and the molecular mechanisms underlying ecological functions of thraustochytrids remain largely unknown.
Results: The genomes of two thraustochytrids strains (Mn4 and SW8) with ability to produce DHA were sequenced and assembled with a hybrid sequencing approach utilizing Illumina short paired-end reads and Pacific Biosciences long reads to generate a highly accurate genome assembly. Phylogenomic and comparative genomic analyses found that DHA-producing thraustochytrid strains were highly similar and possessed similar gene content. Analysis of the conventional fatty acid synthesis (FAS) and the polyketide synthase (PKS) systems for PUFAs production only detected incomplete and fragmentary pathways in the genome of these two strains. Surprisingly, secreted carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZymes) were found to be significantly depleted in the genomes of these 2 strains as compared to other sequenced relatives. Furthermore, these two strains possess an expanded gene repertoire for signal transduction and self-propelled movement, which could be important for their adaptations to dynamic marine environments.
Conclusions: Our results demonstrate the possibility of a third PUFAs synthesis pathway besides previously described FAS and PKS pathways encoded in the genome of these two thraustochytrid strains. Moreover, lack of a complete set of hydrolytic enzymatic machinery for degrading plant-derived organic materials suggests that these two DHA-producing strains play an important role as a nutritional source rather than a nutrient-producer in marine microbial-food web. Results of this study suggest the existence of two types of saprobic thraustochytrids in the world's ocean. The first group, which does not produce cellulosic enzymes and live as 'left-over' scavenger of bacterioplankton, serves as a dietary source for the plankton of higher trophic levels and the other possesses capacity to live on detrital organic matters in the marine ecosystems.
Keywords: Comparative genomics; Ecological function; Polyunsaturated fatty acids; Thraustochytrids; Whole genome sequencing.