The Sterol-C7 Desaturase from the Ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila Is a Rieske Oxygenase, Which Is Highly Conserved in Animals

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The ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila incorporates sterols from its environment that desaturates at positions C5(6), C7(8), and C22(23). Phytosterols are additionally modified by removal of the ethyl group at carbon 24 (C24). The enzymes involved are oxygen-, NAD(P)H-, and cytochrome b5 dependent, reason why they were classified as members of the hydroxylases/desaturases superfamily. The ciliate’s genome revealed the presence of seven putative sterol desaturases belonging to this family, two of which we have previously characterized as the C24-de-ethylase and C5(6)-desaturase. A Rieske oxygenase was also identified; this type of enzyme, with sterol C7(8)-desaturase activity, was observed only in animals, called Neverland in insects and DAF-36 in nematodes. They perform the conversion of cholesterol into 7-dehydrocholesterol, first step in the synthesis of the essential hormones ecdysteroids and dafachronic acids. By adapting an RNA interference-by-feeding protocol, we easily screened six of the eight genes described earlier, allowing the characterization of the Rieske-like oxygenase as the ciliate’s C7(8)-desaturase (Des7p). This characterization was confirmed by obtaining the corresponding knockout mutant, making Des7p the first nonanimal Rieske-sterol desaturase described. To our knowledge, this is the first time that the feeding-RNAi technique was successfully applied in T. thermophila, enabling to consider such methodology for future reverse genetics high-throughput screenings in this ciliate. Bioinformatics analyses revealed the presence of Des7p orthologs in other Oligohymenophorean ciliates and in nonanimal Opisthokonts, like the protists Salpingoeca rosetta and Capsaspora owczarzaki. A horizontal gene transfer event from a unicellular Opisthokont to an ancient phagotrophic Oligohymenophorean could explain the acquisition of the Rieske oxygenase by Tetrahymena.

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