Microevolution in the pansecondary metabolome of Aspergillus flavus and its potential macroevolutionary implications for filamentous fungi.
Fungi produce a wealth of pharmacologically bioactive secondary metabolites (SMs) from biosynthetic gene clusters (BGCs). It is common practice for drug discovery efforts to treat species’ secondary metabolomes as being well represented by a single or a small number of representative genomes. However, this approach misses the possibility that intraspecific population dynamics, such as adaptation to environmental conditions or local microbiomes, may harbor novel BGCs that contribute to the overall niche breadth of species. Using 94 isolates of Aspergillus flavus, a cosmopolitan model fungus, sampled from seven states in the United States, we dereplicate 7,821 BGCs into 92 unique BGCs. We find that more than 25% of pangenomic BGCs show population-specific patterns of presence/absence or protein divergence. Population-specific BGCs make up most of the accessory-genome BGCs, suggesting that different ecological forces that maintain accessory genomes may be partially mediated by population-specific differences in secondary metabolism. We use ultra-high-performance high-resolution mass spectrometry to confirm that these genetic differences in BGCs also result in chemotypic differences in SM production in different populations, which could mediate ecological interactions and be acted on by selection. Thus, our results suggest a paradigm shift that previously unrealized population-level reservoirs of SM diversity may be of significant evolutionary, ecological, and pharmacological importance. Last, we find that several population-specific BGCs from A. flavus are present in Aspergillus parasiticus and Aspergillus minisclerotigenes and discuss how the microevolutionary patterns we uncover inform macroevolutionary inferences and help to align fungal secondary metabolism with existing evolutionary theory.