WhyAspergillus species produce aflatoxin remains an unsolved question. In this report we suggest that evolution of the aflatoxin biosynthesis gene cluster has been a multistep process. More than 300 million years ago a primordial cluster of genes allowed production of anthraquinones that may have served as insect attractants to facilitate spore dispersal. Later adaptive evolutionary steps introduced genes into the cluster that encoded enzymes associated with fungal virulence. These genes may have allowed the otherwise saprophytic fungi to be better able to colonize living plants. Later, genes for production of aflatoxins B1 and G1 were added to the basal cluster. Loss of the ability to produce aflatoxin G1 occurred with the divergence ofA. flavus, a species that, perhaps, was more successful than its ancestors at colonizing plants. This logical progression in evolutionary development of the aflatoxin biosynthetic cluster fits the phylogenetic data as well as known chemical reactivity of the initially formed anthraquinone polyketide metabolites.
Keywordsaflatoxin Aspergillus section Flavi phylogenetics biosynthesis adaptive evolution
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