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Many microorganisms contain cellulases that are important for plant cell wall degradation and overall soil ecosystem functioning. At present, we have extensive biochemical knowledge of cellulases but little is known about the phylogenetic distribution of these enzymes. To address this, we analyzed the distribution of 21,985 genes encoding proteins related to cellulose utilization in 5,123 sequenced bacterial genomes. First, we identified the distribution of glycoside hydrolases involved in cellulose utilization and synthesis at different taxonomic levels, from the phylum to the strain. Cellulose degradation/utilization capabilities appeared in nearly all major groups and resulted in strains displaying various enzyme gene combinations. Potential cellulose degraders, having both cellulases and β-glucosidases, constituted 24% of all genomes whereas potential opportunistic strains, having β-glucosidases only, accounted for 56%. Finally, 20% of the bacteria have no relevant enzymes and do not rely on cellulose utilization. The latter group was primarily connected to specific bacterial lifestyles like autotrophy and parasitism. Cellulose degraders, as well as opportunists, have multiple enzymes with similar functions. However, the potential degraders systematically harbor about twice more β-glucosidases than their potential opportunistic relatives. Although scattered, the distribution of functional types, in bacterial lineages, is not random but mostly follows a Brownian motion evolution model. Degraders form clusters of relatives at the species level, whereas opportunists are clustered at the genus level. This information can form a mechanistic basis for the linking of changes in microbial community composition to soil ecosystem processes.


Renaud Berlemont, Adam C Martiny. Phylogenetic distribution of potential cellulases in bacteria. Applied and environmental microbiology. 2013 Mar;79(5):1545-54

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PMID: 23263967

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