, Volume 86, Issue 5, pp 1323-1336,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 25 Mar 2010

Rhamnolipids: diversity of structures, microbial origins and roles

Abstract

Rhamnolipids are glycolipidic biosurfactants produced by various bacterial species. They were initially found as exoproducts of the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa and described as a mixture of four congeners: α-L-rhamnopyranosyl-α-L-rhamnopyranosyl-β-hydroxydecanoyl-β-hydroxydecanoate (Rha-Rha-C10-C10), α-L-rhamnopyranosyl-α-L-rhamnopyranosyl-β-hydroxydecanoate (Rha-Rha-C10), as well as their mono-rhamnolipid congeners Rha-C10-C10 and Rha-C10. The development of more sensitive analytical techniques has lead to the further discovery of a wide diversity of rhamnolipid congeners and homologues (about 60) that are produced at different concentrations by various Pseudomonas species and by bacteria belonging to other families, classes, or even phyla. For example, various Burkholderia species have been shown to produce rhamnolipids that have longer alkyl chains than those produced by P. aeruginosa. In P. aeruginosa, three genes, carried on two distinct operons, code for the enzymes responsible for the final steps of rhamnolipid synthesis: one operon carries the rhlAB genes and the other rhlC. Genes highly similar to rhlA, rhlB, and rhlC have also been found in various Burkholderia species but grouped within one putative operon, and they have been shown to be required for rhamnolipid production as well. The exact physiological function of these secondary metabolites is still unclear. Most identified activities are derived from the surface activity, wetting ability, detergency, and other amphipathic-related properties of these molecules. Indeed, rhamnolipids promote the uptake and biodegradation of poorly soluble substrates, act as immune modulators and virulence factors, have antimicrobial activities, and are involved in surface motility and in bacterial biofilm development.