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Constraining the Interpretation of 2-Methylhopanoids through Genetic and Phylogenetic Methods


Ricci, Jessica Nicole (2015) Constraining the Interpretation of 2-Methylhopanoids through Genetic and Phylogenetic Methods. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z9MC8X0S.


Hopanoids are a class of sterol-like lipids produced by select bacteria. Their preservation in the rock record for billions of years as fossilized hopanes lends them geological significance. Much of the structural diversity present in this class of molecules, which likely underpins important biological functions, is lost during fossilization. Yet, one type of modification that persists during preservation is methylation at C-2. The resulting 2-methylhopanoids are prominent molecular fossils and have an intriguing pattern over time, exhibiting increases in abundance associated with Ocean Anoxic Events during the Phanerozoic. This thesis uses diverse methods to address what the presence of 2-methylhopanes tells us about the microbial life and environmental conditions of their ancient depositional settings. Through an environmental survey of hpnP, the gene encoding the C-2 hopanoid methylase, we found that many different taxa are capable of producing 2-methylhopanoids in more diverse modern environments than expected. This study also revealed that hpnP is significantly overrepresented in organisms that are plant symbionts, in environments associated with plants, and with metabolisms that support plant-microbe interactions; collectively, these correlations provide a clue about the biological importance of 2-methylhopanoids. Phylogenetic reconstruction of the evolutionary history of hpnP revealed that 2-methylhopanoid production arose in the Alphaproteobacteria, indicating that the origin of these molecules is younger than originally thought. Additionally, we took genetic approach to understand the role of 2-methylhopanoids in Cyanobacteria using the filamentous symbiotic Nostoc punctiforme. We found that hopanoids likely aid in rigidifying the cell membrane but do not appear to provide resistance to osmotic or outer membrane stressors, as has been shown in other organisms. The work presented in this thesis supports previous findings that 2-methylhopanoids are not biomarkers for oxygenic photosynthesis and provides new insights by defining their distribution in modern environments, identifying their evolutionary origin, and investigating their role in Cyanobacteria. These efforts in modern settings aid the formation of a robust interpretation of 2-methylhopanes in the rock record.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Microbiology; Geology; Phylogenetics; Hopanoids
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Biology and Biological Engineering
Major Option:Biology
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Newman, Dianne K.
Thesis Committee:
  • Sternberg, Paul W. (chair)
  • Mazmanian, Sarkis K.
  • Leadbetter, Jared R.
  • Sessions, Alex L.
Defense Date:21 May 2015
Non-Caltech Author Email:jricci29 (AT)
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05282015-153534197
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8903
Deposited By: Jessica Ricci
Deposited On:04 Jun 2015 22:47
Last Modified:08 Nov 2023 00:46

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