Melanins serve a variety of protective functions in plants and animals, but in fungi such as Cryptococcus neoformans they are also associated with virulence. A recently developed solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) strategy, based on the incorporation of site-specific 13C-enriched precursors into melanin, followed by spectroscopy of both powdered and solvent-swelled melanin ghosts, was used to provide new molecular-level insights into fungal melanin biosynthesis. The side chain of an L-dopa precursor was shown to cyclize and form a proposed indole structure in C. neoformans melanin, and modification of the aromatic rings revealed possible patterns of polymer chain elongation and cross-linking within the biopolymer. Mannose supplied in the growth medium was retained as a β-pyranose moiety in the melanin ghosts even after exhaustive degradative and dialysis treatments, suggesting the possibility of tight binding or covalent incorporation of the pigment into the polysaccharide fungal cell walls. In contrast, glucose was scrambled metabolically and incorporated into both polysaccharide cell walls and aliphatic chains present in the melanin ghosts, consistent with metabolic use as a cellular nutrient as well as covalent attachment to the pigment. The prominent aliphatic groups reported previously in several fungal melanins were identified as triglyceride structures that may have one or more sites of chain unsaturation. These results establish that fungal melanin contains chemical components derived from sources other than L-dopa polymerization and suggest that covalent linkages between L-dopa-derived products and polysaccharide components may serve to attach this pigment to cell wall structures.
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