A squalene-hopene cyclase in Schizosaccharomyces japonicus represents a eukaryotic adaptation to sterol-limited anaerobic environments

Jonna Bouwknegt, Sanne J. Wiersma, Raúl A. Ortiz-Merino, Eline S.R. Doornenbal, Petrik Buitenhuis, Martin Giera, Christoph Müller, Jack T. Pronk*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
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Biosynthesis of sterols, which are key constituents of canonical eukaryotic membranes, requiresmolecular oxygen. Anaerobic protists and deep-branching anaerobic fungi are the only eukaryotes in which a mechanism for sterol-independent growth has been elucidated. In these organisms, tetrahymanol, formed through oxygen-independent cyclization of squalene by a squalene-tetrahymanol cyclase, acts as a sterol surrogate. This study confirms an early report [C. J. E. A. Bulder, Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, 37, 353-358 (1971)] that Schizosaccharomyces japonicus is exceptional among yeasts in growing anaerobically on synthetic media lacking sterols and unsaturated fatty acids. Mass spectrometry of lipid fractions of anaerobically grown Sch. japonicus showed the presence of hopanoids, a class of cyclic triterpenoids not previously detected in yeasts, including hop-22(29)-ene, hop- 17(21)-ene, hop-21(22)-ene, and hopan-22-ol. A putative gene in Sch. japonicus showed high similarity to bacterial squalene-hopene cyclase (SHC) genes and in particular to those of Acetobacter species. No orthologs of the putative Sch. japonicus SHC were found in other yeast species. Expression of the Sch. japonicus SHC gene (Sjshc1) in Saccharomyces cerevisiae enabled hopanoid synthesis and stimulated anaerobic growth in sterol-free media, thus indicating that one or more of the hopanoids produced by SjShc1 could at least partially replace sterols. Use of hopanoids as sterol surrogates represents a previously unknown adaptation of eukaryotic cells to anaerobic growth. The fast anaerobic growth of Sch. japonicus in sterol-free media is an interesting trait for developing robust fungal cell factories for application in anaerobic industrial processes.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2105225118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number32
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Anaerobic
  • Hopanoids
  • Schizosaccharomyces
  • Sterols
  • Yeast


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