Thraustochytrids are abundant and ubiquitous osmoheterotrophic marine protists (labyrinthulomycetes, stramenopiles) thought to function ecologically as fungus-like decomposers. Some thraustochytrids have the ability to synthesize carotenoids, including carotenes (e.g. beta-carotene) and xanthophylls (e.g. astaxanthin), which is uncommon among heterotrophic eukaryotes. Carotenogenic thraustochytrids appear to have acquired carotenoid biosynthetic enzymes by horizontal gene transfer from bacteria. Heterotrophic production of carotenoids is typically associated with protection against oxidative stress, and in thraustochytrids may be particularly associated with protecting large amounts of essential omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids stored in lipid droplets. To gain better understanding of carotenoid function in thraustochytrids, and thus new insight into the ecophysiology of these organisms, we have produced mutants of the thraustochytrid Aurantiochytrium limacinum in which the trifunctional gene Aurli_150841, encoding the first three carotenogenesis-specific reactions (phytoene synthase, phytoene desaturase, lycopene cyclase), has been interrupted by double homologous recombination with a construct containing a zeocin resistance (BleoR, shble) expression cassette. As predicted, the Aurli_150841 knockout mutants lack the carotenoid pigmentation found in the wild-type. Complementation with the wild-type Aurli_150841 to confirm that this phenotype is due to the knockout is in progress. Differences between the wild-type and Aurli_150841 knockout mutants in features such as growth rate and biomass yield, lipid content, survival in stationary phase and response to oxidative stress are being evaluated under growth conditions that induce different amounts of carotenoid accumulation in the wild-type.

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