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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Speciation despite globally overlapping distributions in Penicillium chrysogenum: the population genetics of Alexander Fleming’s lucky fungus

item Henk, Daniel
item Eagle, Carly
item Brown, Kevin
item Van Den Berg, Marco
item Dyer, Paul
item Peterson, Stephen - Steve
item Fisher, Matthew

Submitted to: Molecular Ecology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 6/15/2011
Publication Date: 9/23/2011
Citation: Henk, D.A., Eagle, C.E., Brown, K., Van Den Berg, M.A., Dyer, P.S., Peterson, S.W., Fisher, M.C. 2011. Speciation despite globally overlapping distributions in Penicillium chrysogenum: the population genetics of Alexander Fleming’s lucky fungus. Molecular Ecology. 20(20):4288-4301.

Interpretive Summary: This research examined the genetic signatures of numerous penicillin-producing molds called Penicillium chrysogenum, which were first described in 1928 by Alexander Flemming, in order to determine their diversity and distribution throughout the world. The antibiotic penicillin has historical importance as the first effective way to treat life-threatening infections and continues to be widely used today. This works revealed that molds labeled as Penicillium chrysogenum actually consist of four genetically distinct species. This work is important for geneticists that work with these important organisms and may have application in strain improvement for industrial production of antibiotics.

Technical Abstract: Eighty years ago, Alexander Fleming described the antibiotic effects of a fungus that had contaminated his bacterial culture, kick starting the antimicrobial revolution. The fungus was later ascribed to a globally distributed asexual species, Penicillium chrysogenum. Recently, the species has been shown to be genetically diverse, and possess mating-type genes. Here, we use phylogenetic and population genetic tools to show that one of the most common Penicillium species found in air, Penicillium flemingii sp nov, Fleming’s fungus, is distinct from several other similar species including P. chrysogenum sensu stricto, P. chainii sp nov., and P. floreyi sp nov. We found each species in air and dust samples collected in and around St Mary’s Hospital where Fleming worked. Genotyping of 30 markers across the genome showed that preserved fungal material from Fleming’s laboratory was nearly identical to derived strains currently in culture collections and that a later wild progenitor strain of current penicillin producing industrial strains is also P. flemingii rather than P. chrysogenum. Global samples of P. flemingii and P. chrysogenum were found to possess mating-type genes, in a near 1:1 ratio, and show evidence of recombination, with no geographic population subdivision evident. However, no hybridization was detected between the species despite an estimated time of divergence of less than 1 MYA. Results highlight that fungal diversity is still under-recognized even in the most common groups, the value of phylogenetic species recognition, and that fungi show the potential for speciation despite complete overlap in their distribution across all scales.

Last Modified: 10/16/2017
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