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Secondary metabolites are often considered within the remit of bacterial or plant research, but animals also contain a plethora of these molecules with important functional roles. Classical feeding studies demonstrate that, whereas some are derived from diet, many of these compounds are made within the animals. In the past 15 years, the genetic and biochemical origin of several animal natural products has been traced to partnerships with symbiotic bacteria. More recently, a number of animal genome-encoded pathways to microbe-like natural products have come to light. These pathways are sometimes horizontally acquired from bacteria, but more commonly they unveil a new and diverse animal biochemistry. In this review, we highlight recent examples of characterized animal biosynthetic enzymes that reveal an unanticipated breadth and intricacy in animal secondary metabolism. The results so far suggest that there may be an immense diversity of animal small molecules and biosynthetic enzymes awaiting discovery. This biosynthetic dark matter is just beginning to be understood, providing a relatively untapped frontier for discovery.
), so it was thought that elaborate compounds could be acquired from the environment. Classical studies of the origins of animal secondary metabolites reveal that many are diet-derived, whereas others are made within the animals (
). However, these studies mostly lacked the genetic and biochemical evidence required to determine whether de novo biosynthesized compounds originated within the animals themselves or within symbiotic partners.
Indeed, over the past 20 years or so, many “animal” biosynthetic pathways have been traced back to symbiotic bacteria, which form very tight associations with animals for chemical defense (
). This has led some workers to believe that most, if not all, animal secondary metabolites originate in microbes. Belying this belief, humans make secondary metabolites, such as steroids, prostaglandins, lipids, melanins, neurotransmitters, G protein–coupled receptor ligands, and related compounds, the biosyntheses of which are now textbook knowledge. Perhaps familiarity and the imprecision of the underlying definitions makes these compounds seem less “secondary.” In contrast, for important compounds restricted to nonhuman animals, relatively little was known at the genetic level, with exceptions including a few insect pheromones with economic importance (
Because of recent improved sequencing and bioinformatics methods coupled with rigorous genetic and biochemical analyses, there has been no less than a revolution in our ability to understand metabolism in nonhuman animals. The origins of the countless secondary metabolites from diverse animals are starting to be unraveled (Fig. 1). This short review covers some of the recent major advances in understanding animal secondary metabolism from diverse phyla. The scope and importance of these advances is not immediately clear because the published literature mostly focuses on single groups, such as insects or marine natural products. By instead examining the global perspective, trends are already emerging that help to understand the many unique ways that animals make elaborate secondary metabolites. Below, we walk through some of the different biochemical classes now known to originate in animal metabolism.
Shikimic acid is important in the synthesis of aromatic amino acids, but shikimic acid and related derivatives are also central in secondary metabolism. Examples include drugs from plants such as warfarin and etoposide relatives, and bacterial antibiotics, such as chloramphenicol and aminoglycosides, among many others. Shikimic acid metabolism is not supposed to occur in animals, which otherwise obtain aromatic amino acids from diet (
). The biosynthesis of MAAs was first characterized in cyanobacteria. Related biosynthetic pathways have been found throughout the animal tree of life, including in vertebrates such as fish, but not mammals (
At least three major types of MAA-like biosynthetic pathways have been described (Fig. 2). The pathways synthesize natural sunscreens, including MAAs, as well as a series of related compounds such as gadusol and deoxygadusol. All of these pathways use an enzyme converting a sugar, sedheptulose 7-phosphate (SH7P), into a cyclitol, using DHQS-like enzymes. One of these, to MAAs in bacteria, first produces demethyl 4-deoxygadusol (DDG) using a DGG synthase (DDGS) (
). A methyltransferase then synthesizes deoxygadusol. Nonribosomal peptide synthetase (NRPS)-like and ATP-grasp enzymes add amino acids to form the final MAA product. A related pathway is found in cnidarians (e.g. corals), but with an interesting fusion of the methyltransferase with the DDGS enzyme (
A third variation, found in fish and other vertebrates, uses a different strategy. Instead of cyclizing SH7P in tandem with reduction by DDGS, this pathway first leads to 2-epi-5-epi-valiolone (EEV) via the EEV synthase (EEVS) enzyme (
). The EEVS is paired with a fused methyltransferase-oxidase enzyme, which synthesizes gadusol from EEV. Because the gadusol EEV was characterized both by heterologous expression and by knockdown in fish, the evidence for its function is quite strong.
Now that the biosynthetic genes are in hand, it is clear that understanding biosynthesis of MAAs and related compounds in animals is complicated by the fact that they may have both de novo and dietary origin and that de novo synthesis can occur through symbiosis with bacteria (
). The widespread occurrence of these compounds attests to their biological importance in protecting from UV damage and other, mostly UV-related functions.
Isoprenoid/terpene natural products are widespread in all forms of life and include well-known compounds such as steroids. They have many well-established biological roles, including chemical defense, pheromones, hormones, and many others (
). Here, we will cover recent advances in animal terpene cyclization, other than sterols/steroids, which are well-studied because of their importance in human biology.
Isoprenoids are found in most animals. In bacteria and plants, isoprene precursors dimethylallyl pyrophosphate and isopentenyl pyrophosphate can be made either via the mevalonate or deoxyxylulose phosphate pathways, but in animals mevalonate is the source of these precursors (
). The early steps leading to mevalonate are nearly identical in all animals. The major exception is that some of the insect enzymes exhibit relaxed substrate selectivity, making homo isoprenoids that are important insect hormones (
). Subsequently, isoprenyl diphosphate synthases (IDSs) condense dimethylallyl pyrophosphate and isopentenyl pyrophosphate, leading to methyl-branched oligomers of five-carbon units, such as geranyl pyrophosphate (GPP, 10 carbons), farnesyl pyrophosphate (FPP, 15 carbons), and so on.
To make complex secondary metabolites, plants and bacteria use terpene synthases/cyclases (TPSs). In animals, bacteria- and plant-like TPSs have not been identified, so that the basis of de novo terpene biosynthesis was mysterious. In 2009, an insect IDS was discovered that converts GPP to a dehydrated monoterpene (
). Nine transcripts were found encoding IDS-like sequences. These were expressed in Escherichia coli and functionally characterized. One of the IDS-like enzymes, PsTPS1, converted (Z,E)-FPP into primarily bicyclic sesquiterpenes. Other enzymes were IDSs, produced linear isoprenoids, or had no detectable activity in the assay conditions. The use of (Z,E)-FPP was surprising, given that most TPSs use (E,E)-FPP. One of the IDSs specifically synthesized (Z,E)-FPP, the substrate for the enzyme. Transcriptional and knockdown studies provided further evidence that the correct enzymes were identified.
The identification of PsTPS1 led to the realization that there are other IDS-like TPS enzymes encoded in insect genomes (
). These are more closely related to insect IDSs than to TPSs from other organisms, and thus have evolved convergently. Recently, insect TPSs from a stink bug and a beetle species have been characterized. These enzymes produce different monocyclic, bisabolene-like isoprenoids from (E,E)-FPP (
). Experimental evidence is very strong because of a combination of heterologous expression and knockdown studies. On the evolutionary front, one of the most interesting things to emerge was that TPSs have independently evolved from IDSs in several different insect lineages (
Animals make many lipid-derived natural products. Historically, specialized animal lipid metabolism has been considered to be degradative. For example, essential fatty acids such as arachidonic acid are oxidatively modified to produce prostaglandins. In a few of the examples below, degradative reactions from de novo or dietary fatty acids produce specialized metabolites. Recently, there has been an increased appreciation that animals can also build polyketides, complex lipid-like compounds normally associated with bacterial metabolism. For example, polyketide products include the bacterial products and pharmaceutical drugs erythromycin and amphotericin. Whereas the first animal polyketide synthase (PKS) was recognized about 16 years ago, recent advances in characterization and sequence analysis have revealed widespread families of PKSs in animal genomes.
Many of the pheromones used by insects and other organisms are derivatives of simple fatty acids (Fig. 4) (
). A similar, but much more elaborate, scheme can be found in the nematode hormones, ascarosides. Instead of simple oxidative modification of fatty acids, the ascarosides are formed by a combinatorial mixture of different degradative and building/tailoring steps to create a large series of derivatives (
). These enzymes consist of several domains in a single, large polypeptide chain. Fatty acids are condensed from malonyl-CoA and related units, with each chain elongation step incorporating an additional 2-carbon unit into the chain. The acyltransferase (AT) domain selects the CoA substrate, whereas the ketosynthase (KS) is responsible for carbon–carbon bond formation to create β-ketoesters. Substrates and intermediates are tethered to a carrier protein (CP; usually referred to as acyl carrier protein (ACP)). Other domains, ketoreductase (KR), dehydratase (DH), and enoylreductase (ER), reduce the ketoester to the alkyl ester (Fig. 5A).
Closely related to type I animal FAS, the type I PKSs usually have similar domains and domain architecture. In 2003, the first animal PKS (Pks1) was reported in a sea urchin, Strongylocentrus purpuratus, where its knockdown led to loss of color, whereas urchin Pks2 is involved in skeletogenesis and immune defense in embryos (
). Coloration in the sea urchin is due to an aromatic polyketide-like product, echinochrome, so it was speculated that Pks1 might be the urchin echinochrome synthase. Recently, a stable knockout was created that showed an absolute loss of pigment through the life cycle, further supporting this assignment (
), they group together in an animal-specific PKS family.
Carminic acid is a famous red dye from beetles, with a similar structure to echinochrome, except that it is C-linked to glucose. Although the putative PKS is unknown as of this writing, recently, the glucosyltransferase was characterized and shown to be insect in origin (
), adding new evidence that aromatic polyketides might be biosynthesized by animals.
Another PKS characterized by genetic means, but with uncertain products, is OlPKS found in the zebrafish. Nonsynonymous mutation in the OlPKS KS domain led to deficiencies in otolith (hearing) formation in the fish and is related to calcium accumulation (
). This function is conceptually similar to the role of Pks2 result from urchins. The first strong (but still indirect) chemical indication that an animal PKS might synthesize complex natural products was found in the case of nematode secondary metabolites (
). Budgerigars normally have green feathers, but variants have blue feathers and are thus missing a yellow pigment component. The difference was localized to MuPKS. Heterologous expression of the PKS and characterization of its products showed that it produces a yellow-colored, fatty acid-like, all-trans-polyene. The PKS is able to create the extended conjugation responsible for coloration because its ER domain lacks the amino acids required for NADPH binding. Thus, it cannot reduce the α,β-unsaturated carbonyl intermediate in fatty acid biosynthesis (Fig. 5B). This study represented the first comprehensive evidence of a functional PKS to secondary metabolism in animals. A number of other bird species have highly similar PKSs, suggesting that their coloration might also be due to a PKS. A PKS from mallard ducks was partially characterized via biochemical analysis, although its product is unknown (
). Intriguingly, whereas the domain order of the PKS is somewhat conserved at the protein N terminus, the C-terminal ends of animal PKSs are highly variable, containing different termination domains, and even in several cases NRPS domains. These domain orders are highly similar to what is observed in fungi and in some bacteria. However, phylogenetic analysis of KS domains shows that the PKSs form a group that is animal-specific and that branches separately from those in bacteria and fungi, which form their own distinct families. Thus, it appears that animal PKSs by and large do not arise from horizontal transfer from bacteria, but instead may have arisen from duplication and divergence, at least on the PKS end of the proteins.
Overall, genetic evidence indicates that PKSs are widespread in animals and that their products play key roles in animal physiology. By far, most animal PKSs have yet to be characterized. Their variable sequences and domain architectures suggest that the resulting chemical diversity is likely to be immense.
Nonribosomal peptides, alkaloids, and amino acids
Nonribosomal peptides and alkaloids are well-known drugs, including bacterial compounds, such as penicillins and vancomycin, and plan compounds, such as vinca alkaloids. Their biosyntheses are typically associated with microbes and plants, respectively, but animals contain NRPS genes (
Recent advances in biosynthetic studies with insect and vertebrate enzymes show that animal biosynthesis via NRPS pathways may be more widespread than initially thought. NRPSs are typically multiple-domain enzymes consisting at a minimum of an adenylation (A) domain, which activates amino acids and related metabolites, and a carrier protein (CP, also known as T, ACP, and PCP), which uses a covalently linked phosphopantetheine moiety to carry the activated amino acid (
). These single-module NRPS proteins include Ebony, from several insects including Drosophila melanogaster, and ACSF-U26, from vertebrates including humans (Fig. 6A). Ebony is one of the oldest known NRPS genes, although it was not characterized as such until pioneering work in the 2000s (
). Ebony is crucial to pigmentation, behavior, and vision of D. melanogaster. It was proposed that Ebony is involved in regulating histamine and other neurotransmitters, covalently modifying and inactivating them (
). By contrast, the Ebony architecture is A-CP, followed by a domain with no sequence similarity to characterized proteins. A crystal structure of the Ebony C terminus revealed an unusual condensation domain with similarity to the aryl-alkylamine-N-acetyl transferase (AANAT) fold, despite the lack of sequence similarity to this group (
). These are mammalian ACS4-U26 proteins and their relatives. As found in Ebony, the A-CP domains use ATP to activate β-alanine. In contrast to what is found with Ebony, the downstream target of activated β-alanine is not known. Because PQQ appears not to be a cofactor for ACS4-U26, it was speculated that the PQQ binding-like domain is actually a protein interaction domain, which may ultimately direct posttranslational modification rather than small-molecule biosynthesis (
). Based upon our recent experience, we speculate that assembly problems with extremely large genes in animals limited the discovery of these proteins. Likely for this reason, as of this writing, only one of these genes/proteins has been experimentally investigated.
The first functional characterization of an animal PKS-NRPS was in the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans (Fig. 6B) (
). PKS-1 is a hybrid, four-module PKS-NRPS, whereas NRPS-1 contains two modules. Together, these proteins synthesize an 18-carbon polyketide portion fused to a tetrapeptide. Two products, nemamides A and B, were isolated from starving worms and fully characterized. The connection between the enzymes and the natural products has yet to be experimentally established, although the correlative evidence is highly compelling. Nemamides were shown to help with survival under starvation conditions, but their precise biological targets have yet to be elucidated.
The origin of nematode PKS-NRPSs appears to be complicated. Phylogeny of the AT and KR domains showed that they are most similar to animal FAS and thus originate in animals (
). Beyond the nematodes, many other animals contain uncharacterized PKS-NRPS genes.
Amino acid–derived and alkaloid-like secondary metabolites are widespread in animals, but their biosyntheses are relatively less studied except for those important in human biology. An exception can be found in the oviothiols and related compounds (Fig. 6). Ovothiols were first reported from eggs of the sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus (
). Ergothione, ovothiol, and many decorated derivatives have been found in animals. Although none of the animal enzymes have been directly characterized, the key enzyme OvoA in P. lividus is very similar to that found in bacteria and parasites, and thus the characterized bacterial pathway from Erwinia tasmaniensis provides a model (
). In addition, the primary amine N-methyltransferases in some ovothiol variants have yet to be characterized. OvoA is found in many different marine animals, but it has been lost in bony fishes and terrestrial animals that have been so far sequenced (
Why discuss all animals together? It is worth considering the evolutionary trajectory of animals from a common origin more than 650 million years ago. Bacteria are supposed to be more exposed to HGT, leading to a rich pallet of available biosynthetic genes, although this story might be oversimplified (
), so that perhaps different mechanisms of chemical diversification might be more prevalent.
In the examples described here, relatively recent HGT from microbes sometimes occurs, but it is more common to see convergent evolution in animals. In many cases, duplication and divergence of ancestral animal genes underlie the ability to produce secondary metabolites. This is especially intriguing given that, sometimes, animals make similar or identical compounds to those found in their food sources, albeit by convergent mechanisms (
Geographic variation and tissue distribution of endogenous terpenoids in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean dorid nudibranch Cadlina luteomartinata: implications for the regulation of de novo biosynthesis.
). It also provides a source of enzymes with widely different properties for biotechnology.
The metabolites defined above are directed inward (within the species or organism), including UV protectants, colorants, hormones, and intraspecies pheromones. By contrast, metabolites known to be produced by symbiotic bacteria are largely directed at other species, such as for chemical defense (
). It seems unlikely that the trend represents a true natural phenomenon, but it may instead result from biased topic selection in the research reported so far.
Whereas animals synthesize compounds found elsewhere, there are also many compounds found so far only in animals and not in other types of life. These include elaborate and strange compounds, such as sponge alkaloids (
). Most of the biosynthetic pathways to these compounds have yet to be discovered. The challenge here is 2-fold: it is difficult to anticipate the potential biochemical reactions, and the bioinformatics methods have been challenging. Whereas the latter limitation is part of mainstream biology and is therefore continuously improving, it is still very difficult to predict how unprecedented bond formations might occur. Making progress requires creativity and good experimental models. One example of this provided above is the work with animal terpene synthases. Once a pathway is discovered, recombinant expression and characterization can also be extremely challenging. An example of this difficulty is in the characterization of nemamide biosynthesis, where this step of functional analysis is lacking in the otherwise highly impactful initial reports, simply because it can be so problematic. Fortunately, methods are improving rapidly, and the outlook is good.
It is difficult to accurately estimate animal species numbers, but the current estimate is that 1 in 14 species on Earth are animals and that this number could be 20 to >100 million in total animal species on Earth (
Geographic variation and tissue distribution of endogenous terpenoids in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean dorid nudibranch Cadlina luteomartinata: implications for the regulation of de novo biosynthesis.
This work was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant R35GM122521 (to E. W. S.). The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest with the contents of this article. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.