Isopentenyl diphosphate, the universal isoprenoid precursor, can be produced by two different biosynthetic routes: either via the acetate/mevalonate (MVA) pathway, or via the more recently identified MVA-independent glyceraldehyde phosphate/pyruvate pathway. These two pathways are easily differentiated by incorporation of [1-13C]glucose and analysis of the resulting labelling patterns found in the isoprenoids. This method was successfully applied to several unicellular algae raised under heterotrophic growth conditions and allowed for the identification of the pathways that were utilized for isoprenoid biosynthesis. All isoprenoids examined (sterols, phytol, carotenoids) of the green algae Chlorella fusca and Chlamydomonas reinhardtii were synthesized via the GAP/pyruvate pathway, as in another previously investigated green alga, Scenedesmus obliquus, which was also shown in this study to synthesize ubiquinone by the same MVA-independent route. In the red alga Cyanidium caldarium and in the Chrysophyte Ochromonas danica a clear dichotomy was observed: as in higher plants, sterols were formed via the MVA route, whereas chloroplast isoprenoids (phytol in Cy. caldariumand O. danica and β-carotene in O. danica) were synthesized via the GAP/pyruvate route. In contrast, the Euglenophyte Euglena gracilis synthesized ergosterol, as well as phytol, via the acetate/MVA route. Similar feeding experiments were performed with the cyanobacterium SynechocystisPCC 6714 using [1-13C]- and [6-13C]-glucose. The two isoprenoids examined, phytol and β-carotene, were shown to have the typical labelling pattern derived from the GAP/pyruvate route.

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