Microbiol Spectr. 2022 Jan 26:e0079121. doi: 10.1128/spectrum.00791-21. Online ahead of print.
Aspergillus flavus aflR, a gene encoding a Zn(II)2Cys6 DNA-binding domain, is an important transcriptional regulator of the aflatoxin biosynthesis gene cluster. Our previous results of Gene ontology (GO) analysis for the binding sites of AflR in A. flavus suggest that AflR may play an integrative regulatory role. In this study the ΔaflR and overexpression (OE) strains based on the well-established double-crossover recombinational technique were constructed to investigate the integrative function of the aflR gene in A. flavus. The disruption of aflR severely affected the aflatoxin biosynthetic pathway, resulting in a significant decrease in aflatoxin production. The aflatoxin B1 (AFB1) of the ΔaflR strain was 180 ng/mL and aflatoxin B2 (AFB2) was 2.95 ng/mL on YES medium for 5 days, which was 1/1,000 of that produced by the wild-type strain (WT). In addition, the ΔaflR strain produced relatively sparse conidia and a very small number of sclerotia. On the seventh day, the sclerotia yield on each plate of the WT and OE strains exceeded 1,000, while the sclerotial formation of the ΔaflR strain was not detected until 14 days. However, the biosynthesis of cyclopiazonic acid (CPA) was not affected by aflR gene disruption. Transcriptomic analysis of the ΔaflR strain grown on potato dextrose agar (PDA) plates at 0 h, 24 h, and 72 h showed that expression of clustering genes involved in the biosynthesis of aflatoxin was significantly downregulated. Meanwhile, the ΔaflR strain compared with the WT strain showed significant expression differences in genes involved in spore germination, sclerotial development, and carbohydrate metabolism compared to the WT. The results demonstrated that the A. flavus aflR gene also played a positive role in the fungal growth and development in addition to aflatoxin biosynthesis. IMPORTANCE Past studies of the A. flavus aflR gene and its orthologues in related Aspergillus species were solely focused on their roles in secondary metabolism. In this study, we used the ΔaflR and OE strains to demonstrate the role of aflR in growth and development of A. flavus. For the first time, we confirmed that the ΔaflR strain also was defective in production of conidia and sclerotia, asexual propagules of A. flavus. Our transcriptomic analysis further showed that genes involved in spore germination, sclerotial development, aflatoxin biosynssssthesis, and carbohydrate metabolism exhibited significant differences in the ΔaflR strain compared with the WT strain. Our study indicates that AflR not only plays an important role in regulating aflatoxin synthesis but also in playing a positive role in the conidial formation and sclerotial development in A. flavus. This study reveals the critical and positive role of the aflR gene in fungal growth and development, and provides a theoretical basis for the genetic studies of other aspergilli.