Generation, annotation, and analysis of an extensive Aspergillus niger EST collection
© Semova et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2006
Received: 03 October 2005
Accepted: 02 February 2006
Published: 02 February 2006
Aspergillus niger, a saprophyte commonly found on decaying vegetation, is widely used and studied for industrial purposes. Despite its place as one of the most important organisms for commercial applications, the lack of available information about its genetic makeup limits research with this filamentous fungus.
We present here the analysis of 12,820 expressed sequence tags (ESTs) generated from A. niger cultured under seven different growth conditions. These ESTs identify about 5,108 genes of which 44.5% code for proteins sharing similarity (E ≤ 1e -5) with GenBank entries of known function, 38% code for proteins that only share similarity with GenBank entries of unknown function and 17.5% encode proteins that do not have a GenBank homolog. Using the Gene Ontology hierarchy, we present a first classification of the A. niger proteins encoded by these genes and compare its protein repertoire with other well-studied fungal species. We have established a searchable web-based database that includes the EST and derived contig sequences and their annotation. Details about this project and access to the annotated A. niger database are available.
This EST collection and its annotation provide a significant resource for fundamental and applied research with A. niger. The gene set identified in this manuscript will be highly useful in the annotation of the genome sequence of A. niger, the genes described in the manuscript, especially those encoding hydrolytic enzymes will provide a valuable source for researchers interested in enzyme properties and applications.
Members of the genus Aspergillus, including Aspergillus niger, are distributed worldwide and are commonly present on decaying plant debris. These saprophytes degrade the complex molecules in plant cell materials by secreting an extensive assortment of hydrolytic enzymes . Since A. niger grows on organic matter over a wide range of temperature, 6–47°C, and pH, 1.4–9.8 , this fungus produces enzymes that are active in diverse environmental conditions. Indeed, many enzymes produced by this fungus have already found application in the food, beverage, textile, agriculture, and paper and pulp industries [1, 3]. A. niger is also widely used in the manufacture of organic acids including citric, gluconic and fumaric acids [4, 5]. Importantly, citric acid and many enzymes produced in A. niger have received 'generally regarded as safe' or GRAS status by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and can therefore, be safely used for agro-food applications .
Aspergillus niger, with its long history of use for various industrial applications and the ability to efficiently produce native proteins, is an attractive host for the production of heterologous proteins . The commercial production of heterologous proteins using A. niger started when Genencor International (San Francisco) produced bovine chymosin in A. niger  and received US FDA approval for its application in cheese making. A. niger has subsequently been used as an expression host to produce commercially viable levels of many heterologous proteins, including; human cytokine interleukin -6 (IL-6) , Phanerochaete chrysosporium manganese peroxidase (MnP) , barley alpha-amylase , porcine pancreatic prophospholipase A2 (proPLA2) , and correctly assembled human immunoglobulins .
Aspergillus niger is presently one of the most important organisms used in biotechnology. Reflecting this, there are 784 genomic DNA and mRNA sequence entries representing 379 unique genes available in GenBank databases (July 20, 2005 release). The identification of additional genes will enhance further efforts to increase the industrial utility of this organism. Analysis of EST sequences provides a cost-effective approach for gene discovery. Furthermore, EST-derived sequences facilitate genome sequence annotation through the identification of transcription unit boundaries, exon-intron junctions, and genes that lack sequence similarity with previously discovered genes. For these reasons, we initiated an A. niger EST-based gene discovery program. Using normalization methods to enrich for cDNA templates representing weakly expressed genes we identified 5,108 unique genes of which 44.5% encode proteins with significant similarity to GenBank entries that have at least a tentatively assigned function. Using the Gene Ontology hierarchy , we present a classification of the proteins encoded by these A. niger genes and compare its protein repertoire with other well-studied fungal species. Our annotated A. niger EST collection is available at our website .
Results and discussion
Library normalization and subtraction
A. niger EST summary
Total templates processed
Total EST sequences obtained
Average insert size (bp)
Average length of high quality sequence per EST sequence obtained (bp)
Average contig size (bp)
Number of clusters
Number of clones with full-length inserts
Number of coding sequences completely sequenced
Number of clusters derived from more that one unique singleton and/or contig
Full-length ORFs with a potential signal peptide
Unknown sequences which encode a signal peptide
Contig assembling and analysis of A. niger ESTs
We submitted the 12,820 high quality ESTs to GenBank [GenBank: DR697868 – GenBank: DR710686]. Table 1 shows that the individual sequencing reads contained 400–800 nucleotides of high-quality sequence. The EST assembly produced by phrap  yielded 5,202 unisequences that included 2,183 singletonsand 3,019 contigs. Following assembly, we used BLASTN to cluster the closely related singletons and contigs. Clustering assembled 168 of the 5,202 phrap unisequences into 74 clusters, each containing 2–4 sequences. Manually confirmed ClustalW alignments showed that 56 clusters were generated by assembling alternatively spliced derivatives of 117 phrap unisequences. Taking into account the 74 clusters assembled from multiple unisequences, the 12,820 ESTs generated 5,108 clusters. The clusters predicted to have arisen through alternative splicing are available in Additional file 1. Prior to submission of our EST sequences, we found 784 A. niger genomic DNA and cDNA-derived sequence entries in the GenBank database (June 22, 2005 release). These entries formed 379 unique genes. BLASTN analysis showed that 252 of the phrap unisequences aligned with at least one of the A. niger GenBank entries (alignment length >50, identity >95%). Therefore, this study identified about 4,856 new A. niger genes. The results from our EST sequencing, contig assembly and clustering analysis are summarized in Table 1.
Comparative analysis of the phrap unisequences
Distribution of homology between the unique set of A. niger singleton and contig sequences and various databases as determined by BLASTX
Number of genes with similarity
(E ≤ e-5)
Highly significant homology
(E ≤ e-30)
(e-30< E ≤ e-10)
(e-10< E ≤ e-5)
Total GenBank Database set
3367 (64.73 %)
Set of predicted proteins for A. nidulans
Set of predicted proteins for N. crassa
Set of predicted proteins for P. chrysosporium
Set of predicted proteins for S. cerevisiae
We also compared the proteins encoded by these sequences with the proteins predicted from the completely sequenced genomes of three Ascomycetes, Saccharomyces cerevisiae , Aspergillus nidulans and Neurospora crassa , and one Basidiomycete, the white rot fungus Phanerochaete chrysosporium . As expected, the highest degree of similarity (BLASTX alignments with E values ≤ e-30) is with A. nidulans, where 64% of these A. niger unisequences encode proteins that have A. nidulans homologs (Table 2). Nonetheless, almost 20% of the A. niger genes did not have a homolog (E > e-5) in A. nidulans.
Although the Sordariomycetes, which include N. crassa, and the Eurotiomycetes, which include the Aspergilli, diverged about 670 million years (Myr) ago , over 43% of the predicted A. niger proteins are highly similar (E ≤ e-30) to N. crassa predicted proteins. For the more distantly related Saccharomycotinna S. cerevisiae and Hymenomycete P. chrysosporium, which diverged from the Eurotiomycetes lineage about 1,090 and 1,210 Myr ago, respectively , only 21% and 25% of the A. niger predicted proteins had highly similar homologs (E ≤ e-30).
Functional classification of genes based on Gene Ontology terms
Comparison of GO profiling among different fungal species
% Representation to total in main category
Categories and subcategories
cellular physiological process
cell growth and/or maintenance
transcription regulator activity
structural molecule activity
enzyme regulator activity
signal transducer activity
translation regulator activity
Identification of putative secreted proteins
Aspergillus niger is the source of a number of secreted proteins produced for various industrial applications. Gene Ontology mapping categorized only 15 of the predicted proteins as "extracellular" (Additional file 2 ). However, we were able to assign a GO component classifier to only 1,195 (23.4%) of the encoded proteins. To identify potential secreted proteins we used SignalP 3  to search for proteins with a secretion signal. SignalP predicted that about 400 of the predicted proteins had a signal peptide (Additional file 3 ). Blast searches showed that 293 of these proteins were similar (E ≤ e-5)to at least one GenBank entry. The 27% of predicted proteins with a signal peptide that do not have a GenBank homolog is significantly higher that the 17.5% of predicted orphan proteins. The reason for these differences remains unknown although they may suggest that the fungal secretome is subject to rapid evolution.
Characterization of secretion pathway proteins
Recent strategies for improving the efficiency of heterologous protein expression in A. niger have focused on molecular genetic manipulation of the secretory pathway. In some cases, these approaches have significantly increased the expression of selected heterologous proteins [30, 31]. Using GO mappings and BLAST analysis we identified 118 genes that apparently participate in various steps of the protein secretion pathway (Additional file 4 ). Fifteen genes encode secretion-related ER chaperones, foldases and proteases; 77 encode putative proteins involved in protein transport, protein targeting and vesicle-mediated transport; and 26 code for proteins that are involved in secretion-related post-translational modifications. The A. niger genes identified in this study included all the previously identified secretion-related ER chaperones, foldases and quality control proteins: bipA (Asp84), pdiA (Asp734, Asp1902), prpA (Asp4188), tigA (Asp1020), cybB (Asp662), clxA (calnexin) (Asp1882), and kexB (kexin) (Asp177) [30–33].
Previous studies with A. niger identified five secretion-related GTPases belonging to the Ras super-family, SrgA, SrgB, SrgC, SrgD, and SrgE, and one member of the ARF/SAR subfamily, SarA [31, 34]. Our A. niger sequences included the earlier identified SarA (Asp4377), SrgA (Asp5114, Asp4222), SrgB (Asp3374, Asp70) and SrgE (Asp1610) genes. We also identified contigs Asp1708, which encodes a protein with 47% similarity to the S. cerevisiae GTP-binding protein YPT52 , and Asp1824 and Asp1217 that code for proteins with 87% and 94% identity with Aspergillus nidulans members of the Rab subfamily of small GTPases .
Post-translational modifications such as glycosylations are often important for the production of biologically active secreted proteins. For instance, introducing an N-glycosylation site into bovine chymosin increased the amount of secreted chymosin expressed by A. niger 10-fold . Identification of the various genes involved in O- and N- linked glycosylations  would facilitate efforts to engineer the A. niger glycosylation pathway. We identified several putative members of the N- and O-linked protein glycosylation pathways, including; six PTM related O-mannosyltransferases, contigs Asp370, Asp4472, Asp170, Asp1044, Asp1344, and Asp3205 [39, 40] and genes that are involved in N-linked protein glycosylation such as two contigs, Asp1340, and Asp458, that encode homologs of oligosaccharyl transferases .
The 12,820 ESTs identified in this study represent a major attempt to define the A. niger gene set and represent about 5,108 genes. These data dramatically increase the number of identified A. niger genes. We have established a searchable web-based database that includes annotations for each EST and the derived contig assemblies to facilitate research community access to this important resource.
Annotation of the phrap unisequences revealed that 83% had a putative homolog in other species, and therefore about 17% represented novel genes. The template cDNA clones, and their derived EST and contig sequences provide a basis for studying the function of individual genes as well as genome-wide studies of the regulatory networks and cellular functions that define A. niger. They will also assist gene identification, mapping and annotation efforts once the draft genome sequence of A. niger is completed and released. A. niger, known for its efficient secretion machinery, is widely used as a host for the production of native and foreign secreted proteins. However, for many proteins problems have arisen in obtaining high amounts in the culture medium. This study identified 399 putative secreted proteins, and 118 proteins that are putatively involved in various steps of the protein secretion pathway. These sequences should facilitate future efforts to engineering A. niger strains with improved secretion capabilities for proteins presently difficult to express. Additional details about this study and access to the A. niger EST database can be found on our fungal genomics web site .
Source material, total and poly (A)+RNA isolation
Aspergillus niger strain N402, FGSC #4732 was grown at 30°C in Minimal Medium  containing 1% w/v of various carbon sources with shaking at 150 RPM. The carbon sources used were: glucose, bran, maltose, xylan, xylose, sorbitol, and lactose. Mycelial samples harvested by filtration and pressed between layers of filter paper to remove excess liquid, were stored at -80°C.
Total RNA was extracted from each mycelial sample. For this, 1.5 g of each frozen mycelial sample was ground to a fine powder in liquid nitrogen. Total RNA was extracted from the powdered mycelial masses using TRIzol® reagent following the manufacturer's recommendations (Invitrogen, Burlington, ON). Total RNA (200 μg) from each culture condition was pooled and the poly(A)+ RNA was purified using oligo-dT cellulose column chromatography (Amersham Biosciences Corp, Piscataway, NJ). Quality and quantification of the RNA were analyzed by running the RNA samples on an Agilent 2100 bioanalyzer (Agilent Technologies, Palo Alto, CA).
cDNA library construction
The cDNA library was constructed using a Zap-cDNA® Synthesis Kit according to the manufacturer's instructions (Stratagene, La Jolla, CA). Double-stranded cDNA was directionally cloned into the pBluescript® KS + vector (Stratagene, La Jolla, CA) between its Eco RI (5'-end) and Xho I (3'-end) sites and transformed into E. coli strain DH5α.
Plasmid DNA extraction and sequencing
The cDNA library was plated onto LB-ampicillin agar containing X-GAL and IPTG. White colonies were picked and inoculated into 384-well plates containing LB-ampicillin medium using a VersArray robotic colony picker and arrayer system (Bio-Rad, Laboratories, Canada), grown overnight and stored at -70°C after the addition of glycerol (10% v/v). To prepare plasmid DNA from each sample, bacterial inoculates were transferred from the 384 well storage plates to 96-well growth blocks containing 1 ml of 2YT-ampicillin medium per well (Corning, Acton, MA) and grown overnight. Recombinant plasmids were extracted using alkaline lysis  and subjected to single-pass sequencing from the T7 universal primer site (5'-end) using an ABI 3730 XL automated sequencing machine (Applied Biosystems, Foster City, CA) at the Génome Québec Innovation Centre (Montreal, PQ).
Virtual normalization, direct subtraction and selection of colonies forsequencing
Two methods were used to normalize the library. For virtual normalization , bacterial colonies harboring independent cDNA clones were arrayed from the 384-well plates onto nitrocellulose membranes, 9,216 colonies per 492-cm2 membrane. The membranes were probed using radiolabeled cDNA. The probe was prepared as follows; double-stranded cDNA was produced from the same mRNA population that was used for library construction using the SMART cDNA construction kit (BD Biosciences, Mississauga, ON) according to the manufacturer's instructions. The double-stranded cDNA was labeled with [32P]dCTP by random priming, using the Rediprime™ II Random Prime Labeling System (Amersham Biosciences Corp, Piscataway, NJ). The labeled cDNA was used to probe six membranes, arrayed with 55,296 clones, and the clones were ranked according to the relative intensity of their hybridization signals (Figure 1A). Based on these intensity ratios the colonies were divided into three groups, high (relative intensity 50%-100%), moderate (relative intensity 10%-50%), and weak (relative intensity less than 10%).
For direct subtraction, plasmid DNAs representing each of the non-redundant genes that had already been identified was pooled. The pooled plasmid DNAs were linearized with the restriction endonuclease Xho I and radiolabeled "run-off" transcripts were generated using the Riboprobe in vitro Transcription System (Promega, Madison, WI). The probe RNA was then used to hybridize to the same membranes that had been subjected to virtual subtraction.
After hybridization, the membranes were exposed to X-ray film, and the intensity of the signal for each colony was quantified using GeneTools image software (Synoptics Limited). The intensity data for each clone was stored in our in-house database. The clones chosen for sequencing were based on the relative intensity of their hybridization signals, determined as a ratio of signal intensity of the individual clone to the maximum signal intensity present on the array.
Sequence quality control, contig assembly, and sequence analysis
The chromatograms obtained following single pass sequencing of the cDNA clones were processed using three software tools, phred to assign sequence quality values [44, 45], lucy to remove vector sequences and regions of low quality sequence , and phrap to assemble overlapping sequences into contigs . Sequence similarity searches against the NCBI non-redundant database were conducted using BLASTX  with default BLAST parameters. The top 5 scoring BLASTX hits with E values less than e-5 were used to annotate each EST and EST-derived assembly using our annotation program TargetIdentifier . Sequences that did not return alignments with E values less than e-5 were then used to perform BLASTN searches against the NCBI non-redundant nucleotide database. The top 5 BLASTN hits for each query, where the E value was required to be < e-5, were then used for annotation. The resulting output files are uploaded to a local MySQL database.
Redundancy was also analyzed by means of clustering based on the BLASTN alignments. Sequences that exhibited more than 93% identity over lengths of at least 100 bases were assigned to the same cluster. Cluster assignments were confirmed by additional analysis using ClustalW .
For comparing E values obtained by searching databases of different sizes, we normalized the E-values using the following formula:
En = E specific *S nr/S specific,
En: the normalized E value, it is the subject/query E value that would have been obtained had the alignment been generated by searching a database having the same number of amino acids as the NCBI-nr database; E specific: E-value retuned by BLASTX when searching a user specified database other than the NCBI-nr database; S specific: number of amino acids in the user defined database; S nr: number of amino acids in the NCBI-nr database (total 617,284,665).
TargetIdentifier was used to estimate the proportion of the clones that contained complete coding sequences. The criteria used for establishing that a cDNA included the complete ORF can be found on our web site .
Annotation and functional binning
Annotation and functional binning were accomplished using tools provided by the Gene Ontology Consortium . Annotations were based on the Gene Ontology (GO) terms and hierarchical structure . Reference sequences were selected from the BLASTX results with E values less than e-5 obtained by searching the Swiss-Prot database of manually annotated proteins and the TrEMBL database of proteins with automated annotations. The GO categories associated with the BLASTX subject giving the highest score from the Swiss-Prot and TrEMBL databases were used to annotate our A. niger singletons and contigs. The GO term annotations were merged and loaded into the AmiGO browser and database . The resulting GO-derived annotations can be viewed with the AmiGO browser at our website .
Signal peptide prediction
The coding region of each singleton and contig was predicted and translated into protein sequences using our OrfPredictor program . The N-terminal 50 amino acids of each predicted polypeptide were searched for a signal peptide using SignalP version 3 .
We thank the staff at the Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics and the Génome Québec Innovation Centre for their technical assistance; especially Chris Beck, Aleks Spurmanis, Nathalie Brodeur, Michele Boudreau and Parviz Pezeshki. This work was supported by a Strategic Projects grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and by Génome Québec and Genome Canada.
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