A highly conserved gene locus in endofungal bacteria codes for the biosynthesis of symbiosis-specific cyclopeptides.
The tight association of the pathogenic fungus Rhizopus microsporus and its toxin-producing, bacterial endosymbionts (Mycetohabitans spp.) is distributed worldwide and has significance for agriculture, food production, and human health. Intriguingly, the endofungal bacteria are essential for the propagation of the fungal host. Yet, little is known about chemical mediators fostering the symbiosis, and universal metabolites that support the mutualistic relationship have remained elusive. Here, we describe the discovery of a complex of specialized metabolites produced by endofungal bacteria under symbiotic conditions. Through full genome sequencing and comparative genomics of eight endofungal symbiont strains from geographically distant regions, we discovered a conserved gene locus (hab) for a non-ribosomal peptide synthetase as a unifying trait. Bioinformatics analyses, targeted gene deletions, and chemical profiling uncovered unprecedented depsipeptides (habitasporins) whose structures were fully elucidated. Computational network analysis and labeling experiments granted insight into the biosynthesis of their non-proteinogenic building blocks (pipecolic acid and β-phenylalanine). Deletion of the hab gene locus was shown to impair the ability of the bacteria to enter their fungal host. Our study unveils a common principle of the endosymbiotic lifestyle of Mycetohabitans species and expands the repertoire of characterized chemical mediators of a globally occurring mutualistic association.