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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 May 6;105(18):6725-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0800199105. Epub 2008 Apr 24.

A polycyclic terpenoid that alleviates oxidative stress.

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  • 1Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.


Polycyclic terpenoid lipids such as hopanes and steranes have been widely used to understand ancient biology, Earth history, and the oxygenation of the ocean-atmosphere system. Some of these lipids are believed to be produced only by aerobic organisms, whereas others actually require molecular oxygen for their biosynthesis. A persistent question remains: Did some polycyclic lipids initially evolve in response to certain environmental or metabolic stresses, including the presence of oxygen? Here, we identify tetracyclic isoprenoids in spores of the bacterium Bacillus subtilis. We call them sporulenes. They are produced by cyclization of regular polyprenes, a reaction that is more favorable chemically than the formation of terpenoids such as hopanoids and steroids from squalene. The simplicity of the reaction suggests that the B. subtilis cyclase may be analogous to evolutionarily ancient cyclases. We show that these molecules increase the resistance of spores to a reactive oxygen species, demonstrating a specific physiological role for a nonpigment bacterial lipid biomarker. Geostable derivatives of these compounds in sediments could thus be used as direct indicators of oxidative stress and aerobic environments.

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