Metagenomics Shines Light on the Evolution of "Sunscreen" Pigment Metabolism in the Teloschistales (Lichen-Forming Ascomycota)

Theo Llewellyn, Reuben W. Nowell, Andre Aptroot, Marina Temina, Thomas A.K. Prescott, Timothy G. Barraclough, Ester Gaya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Fungi produce a vast number of secondary metabolites that shape their interactions with other organisms and the environment. Characterizing the genes underpinning metabolite synthesis is therefore key to understanding fungal evolution and adaptation. Lichenized fungi represent almost one-third of Ascomycota diversity and boast impressive secondary metabolites repertoires. However, most lichen biosynthetic genes have not been linked to their metabolite products. Here we used metagenomic sequencing to survey gene families associated with production of anthraquinones, UV-protectant secondary metabolites present in various fungi, but especially abundant in a diverse order of lichens, the Teloschistales (class Lecanoromycetes, phylum Ascomycota). We successfully assembled 24 new, high-quality lichenized-fungal genomes de novo and combined them with publicly available Lecanoromycetes genomes from taxa with diverse secondary chemistry to produce a whole-genome tree. Secondary metabolite biosynthetic gene cluster (BGC) analysis showed that whilst lichen BGCs are numerous and highly dissimilar, core enzyme genes are generally conserved across taxa. This suggests metabolite diversification occurs via re-shuffling existing enzyme genes with novel accessory genes rather than BGC gains/losses or de novo gene evolution. We identified putative anthraquinone BGCs in our lichen dataset that appear homologous to anthraquinone clusters from non-lichenized fungi, suggesting these genes were present in the common ancestor of the subphylum Pezizomycotina. Finally, we identified unique transporter genes in Teloschistales anthraquinone BGCs that may explain why these metabolites are so abundant and ubiquitous in these lichens. Our results support the importance of metagenomics for understanding the secondary metabolism of non-model fungi such as lichens.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberevad002
JournalGenome Biology and Evolution
Issue number2
StatePublished - 3 Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.


  • ABC-transporter
  • Lecanoromycetes
  • anthraquinone
  • biosynthetic gene cluster
  • fungal evolution
  • lichenized fungi

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Metagenomics Shines Light on the Evolution of "Sunscreen" Pigment Metabolism in the Teloschistales (Lichen-Forming Ascomycota)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this