Towards clarification of the biological role of microcystins, a family of cyanobacterial toxins

Daniella Schatz, Yael Keren, Assaf Vardi, Assaf Sukenik, Shmuel Carmeli, Thomas Börner, Elke Dittmann, Aaron Kaplan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Microcystins constitute a serious threat to the quality of drinking water worldwide. These protein phosphatase inhibitors are formed by various cyanobacterial species, including Microcystis sp. Microcystins are produced by a complex microcystin synthetase, composed of peptide synthetases and polyketide synthases, encoded by the mcyA-J gene cluster. Recent phylogenetic analysis suggested that the microcystin synthetase predated the metazoan lineage, thus dismissing the possibility that microcystins emerged as a means of defence against grazing, and their original biological role is not clear. We show that lysis of Microcystis cells, either mechanically or because of various stress conditions, induced massive accumulation of McyB and enhanced the production of microcystins in the remaining Microcystis cells. A rise in McyB content was also observed following exposure to microcystin or the protease inhibitors micropeptin and microginin, also produced by Microcystis. The extent of the stimulation by cell extract was strongly affected by the age of the treated Microcystis culture. Older cultures, or those recently diluted from stock cultures, hardly responded to the components in the cell extract. We propose that lysis of a fraction of the Microcystis population is sensed by the rest of the cells because of the release of non-ribosomal peptides. The remaining cells respond by raising their ability to produce microcystins thereby enhancing their fitness in their ecological niche, because of their toxicity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)965-970
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Microbiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2007


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