Detection of marine microalgal biotoxins using bioassays based on functional expression of tunicate xenobiotic receptors in yeast
Marine microalgae can produce biotoxins that cause widespread poisoning in marine ecosystems and may also affect human health. While established microalgal biotoxins are detectable using chemical methods, a need remains for robust, inexpensive bioassays. Ligand-binding domains (LBDs) from a tunicate nuclear receptor, VDR/PXRα, which is orthologous to both the vertebrate pregnane X receptor (PXR) and the vitamin D receptor (VDR), can be activated by microalgal biotoxins when expressed in mammalian cell lines. Building on this observation, we developed a generic recombinant yeast bioassay platform that expresses chimeric proteins containing tunicate VDR/PXRα LBDs which mediate ligand-dependent transcription of a reporter gene (lacZ) encoding an easily assayed enzyme (β-galactosidase). Recombinant yeast strains expressing VDR/PXRα LBDs from two tunicate species, Ciona intestinalis and Botryllus schlosseri, were exposed to both synthetic and natural toxins. Structurally simple synthetic chemicals (n-butyl-p-aminobenzoate, carbamazepine, p-aminobenzoic acid, and bisphenol-A) generated EC50 values in the μM range, while more structurally complex marine biotoxins (okadaic acid, pectenotoxin-11, and portimine) activated the assays in the nM range. Given the large number of tunicate species, we propose that tunicate VDR/PXR LBDs may be used as ‘sensor elements’ in similar yeast-based high-throughput bioassays for detection of established microalgal biotoxins and uncharacterised marine bioactive compounds.