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Acc Chem Res. 2012 Mar 20;45(3):463-72. doi: 10.1021/ar200198d. Epub 2011 Oct 31.

Exploration and mining of the bacterial terpenome.

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Department of Chemistry, Box H, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912-9108, USA.


Tens of thousands of terpenoids are present in both terrestrial and marine plants, as well as fungi. In the last 5-10 years, however, it has become evident that terpenes are also produced by numerous bacteria, especially soil-dwelling Gram-positive organisms such as Streptomyces and other Actinomycetes. Although some microbial terpenes, such as geosmin, the degraded sesquiterpene responsible for the smell of moist soil, the characteristic odor of the earth itself, have been known for over 100 years, few terpenoids have been identified by classical structure- or activity-guided screening of bacterial culture extracts. In fact, the majority of cyclic terpenes from bacterial species have only recently been uncovered by the newly developed techniques of "genome mining". In this new paradigm for biochemical discovery, bacterial genome sequences are first analyzed with powerful bioinformatic tools, such as the BLASTP program or Profile Hidden Markov models, to screen for and identify conserved protein sequences harboring a characteristic set of universally conserved functional domains typical of all terpene synthases. Of particular importance is the presence of variants of two universally conserved domains, the aspartate-rich DDXX(D/E) motif and the NSE/DTE triad, (N/D)DXX(S/T)XX(K/R)(D/E). Both domains have been implicated in the binding of the essential divalent cation, typically Mg(2+), that is required for cyclization of the universal acyclic terpene precursors, such as farnesyl and geranyl diphosphate. The low level of overall sequence similarity among terpene synthases, however, has so far precluded any simple correlation of protein sequence with the structure of the cyclized terpene product. The actual biochemical function of a cryptic bacterial (or indeed any) terpene synthase must therefore be determined by direct experiment. Two common approaches are (i) incubation of the expressed recombinant protein with acyclic allylic diphosphate substrates and identification of the resultant terpene hydrocarbon or alcohol and (ii) in vivo expression in engineered bacterial hosts that can support the production of terpene metabolites. One of the most attractive features of the coordinated application of genome mining and biochemical characterization is that the discovery of natural products is directly coupled to the simultaneous discovery and exploitation of the responsible biosynthetic genes and enzymes. Bacterial genome mining has proved highly rewarding scientifically, already uncovering more than a dozen newly identified cyclic terpenes (many of them unique to bacteria), as well as several novel cyclization mechanisms. Moreover, bioinformatic analysis has identified more than 120 presumptive genes for bacterial terpene synthases that are now ripe for exploration. In this Account, we review a particularly rich vein we have mined in the genomes of two model Actinomycetes, Streptomyces coelicolor and Streptomyces avermitilis, from which the entire set of terpenoid biosynthetic genes and pathways have now been elucidated. In addition, studies of terpenoid biosynthetic gene clusters have revealed a wealth of previously unknown oxidative enzymes, including cytochromes P450, non-heme iron-dependent dioxygenases, and flavin monooxygenases. We have shown that these enzymes catalyze a variety of unusual biochemical reactions, including two-step ketonization of methylene groups, desaturation-epoxidation of secondary methyl groups, and pathway-specific Baeyer-Villiger oxidations of cyclic ketones.

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