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BACKGROUND - Dermatophyte fungi of the family Arthrodermataceae (Eurotiomycetes) colonize keratinized tissue, such as skin, frequently causing superficial mycoses in humans and other mammals, reptiles, and birds. Competition with native microflora likely underlies the propensity of these dermatophytes to produce a diversity of antibiotics and compounds for scavenging iron, which is extremely scarce, as well as the presence of an unusually large number of putative secondary metabolism gene clusters, most of which contain non-ribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPS), in their genomes. To better understand the historical origins and diversification of NRPS-containing gene clusters we examined the evolution of a variable locus (VL) that exists in one of three alternative conformations among the genomes of seven dermatophyte species.
RESULTS - The first conformation of the VL (termed VLA) contains only 539 base pairs of sequence and lacks protein-coding genes, whereas the other two conformations (termed VLB and VLC) span 36 Kb and 27 Kb and contain 12 and 10 genes, respectively. Interestingly, both VLB and VLC appear to contain distinct secondary metabolism gene clusters; VLB contains a NRPS gene as well as four porphyrin metabolism genes never found to be physically linked in the genomes of 128 other fungal species, whereas VLC also contains a NRPS gene as well as several others typically found associated with secondary metabolism gene clusters. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the VL locus was present in the ancestor of all seven species achieving its present distribution through subsequent differential losses or retentions of specific conformations.
CONCLUSIONS - We propose that the existence of variable loci, similar to the one we studied, in fungal genomes could potentially explain the dramatic differences in secondary metabolic diversity between closely related species of filamentous fungi, and contribute to host adaptation and the generation of metabolic diversity.