Chitin is a structural polymer in many eukaryotes. Many organisms can degrade chitin to defend against chitinous pathogens or use chitin oligomers as food. Beneficial microorganisms like nitrogen-fixing symbiotic rhizobia and mycorrhizal fungi produce chitin-based signal molecules called lipo-chitooligosaccharides (LCOs) and short chitin oligomers to initiate a symbiotic relationship with their compatible hosts and exchange nutrients. A recent study revealed that a broad range of fungi produce LCOs and chitooligosaccharides (COs), suggesting that these signaling molecules are not limited to beneficial microbes. The fungal LCOs also affect fungal growth and development, indicating that the roles of LCOs beyond symbiosis and LCO production may predate mycorrhizal symbiosis. This review describes the diverse structures of chitin; their perception by eukaryotes and prokaryotes; and their roles in symbiotic interactions, defense, and microbe-microbe interactions. We also discuss potential strategies of fungi to synthesize LCOs and their roles in fungi with different lifestyles.
Keywords: chitooligosaccharides; defense; fungi; lipo-chitooligosaccharides; rhizobia; symbiosis.