Marine sponges are a rich source of bioactive natural products and are promising sources for drug discovery and development An impressive example is the sponge Theonella swinhoei, which has yielded more than 120 compounds belonging to diverse structural types. Many sponges also harbor highly complex consortia of symbiotic bacteria that are suspected to be the true source of at least some of the secondary metabolites. In previous work, our group demonstrated a bacterial origin of onnamide- and psymberin-type polyketides for two different sponges (1–3), but there were no insights into the producer of compounds from other natural product families. In addition, the exact taxonomic identity of sponge-associated producers remained unknown.
This talk will present new insights into these two issues. Isolation of genes encoding a peptide biosynthetic pathway from the T. swinhoei metagenome demonstrated a bacterial origin. Several genes were heterologously expressed and functionally characterized, which revealed unprecedented biosynthetic transformations. The novelty of these modifications suggests the existence of a structurally distinct natural product family, for which we propose the name proteusins. Using a strategy consisting of single-cell analysis and metagenomic sequencing, we identified the bacterial producer of onnamide polyketides in T. swinhoei. Surprisingly, the data suggest the symbiont to be a chemically exceptionally prolific bacterium, producing not only onnamides but most other compounds from this sponge chemotype, including the known and two previously unknown proteusins. Further biosynthetic studies and a survey of other sponges indicate that close relatives of the producer are widespread in these animals and vary with respect to their biosynthetic capabilities. These bacteria might therefore represent the first uncultivated taxon with a metabolic richness resembling that of major cultivated bacterial natural product sources. These results reveal a key role of symbiotic bacteria in the chemistry of their sponge hosts and provide new strategies to study uncultivated symbionts in a more systematic fashion.