China’s happy tree (Camptotheca acuminata) produces camptothecin, which is a topoisomerase inhibitor that can be used in chemotherapy for cancer. Unfortunately, camptothecin’s bioprocessing imposes crucial obstacles.

“When using the plant tissue-culture based approaches, the challenges of camptothecin production are the lower yield and costly expenses for production of this compound as a scaffold for different commercial derivatives,” says Ashraf S.A. El-Sayed, PhD, professor of mycology and molecular biology at Zagazig University in Egypt. Nonetheless, El-Sayed and his colleagues described a potential new approach with marine fungi, which can also produce camptothecin.

El-Sayed points out that using fungi to produce camptothecin “raises the hope for commercial production of this compound due to the short-life span of fungi and feasibility of molecular engineering.” Still, this approach also comes with some challenges. For one thing, a fungal culture can produce less camptothecin over time.

The solution could come from the seas. “Marine fungi that naturally live in high pressure, high salt concentration, and broad interaction with marine animals and plants could have a unique biosynthetic  gene cluster of camptothecin with autonomous expression, with molecular sustainability independent of environmental conditions,” El-Sayed explains.

Nonetheless, more research must be done to determine if marine fungi could be used in the commercial production of camptothecin. For example, El-Sayed says that scientists need to study “the biosynthetic gene cluster of camptothecin from marine fungi and evaluate its expression potency regarding the different environmental conditions and effectors.”

That’s just what he’s doing now. From the results, he hopes to “explore novel ways for maximum exploitation of the marine fungi for commercial production of camptothecin.”


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