Phoenicin Switch: Discovering the Trigger for Radical Phoenicin Production in Multiple Wild-Type Penicillium Species

Johan Vormsborg Christiansen, Thomas Isbrandt, Rasmus Asferg, Scott A. Jarmusch, Thomas Ostenfeld Larsen, Jens Christian Frisvad*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Society faces the challenge of storing energy from sustainable sources in inexpensive, nontoxic ways that do not deplete the limited resources of Earth. In this regard, quinone redox flow batteries have been proposed as ideal; however, industrially used quinones have traditionally been synthesized from fossil fuels. Therefore, we investigated the production of phoenicin (compound 1), a deep violet dibenzoquinone produced by certain Penicillium species, for its industrial potential. Strains grew as surface cultures on customized growth media with varying production parameters, and phoenicin production was assessed by ultrahigh-performance liquid chromatography-diode array detection-quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometry (UHPLC-DAD-QTOF MS) analysis of the supernatant. Phoenicin production was reliant on the sucrose concentration, and by varying that, we produced 4.94 ± 0.56 g/L phoenicin on a Czapek yeast autolysate broth (CY)-based medium with Penicillium phoeniceum (CBS 249.32) as the production host, with 71.91% phoenicin purity in the resulting medium broth. Unexpectedly, metabolites corresponding to phoenicin polymers were tentatively identified in P. phoeniceum, of which the dimer (diphoenicin) was a major chromatographic peak. An MS-based metabolomics study was conducted on P. atrosanguineum using feature-based molecular networking and multivariate statistics, and it was found that few or no known secondary metabolites besides phoenicin were secreted into the growth medium. Finally, the effects of sucrose, sodium nitrate, and yeast extract (YE) in the growth medium were investigated in a 23 full factorial design. The results indicated an optimal sucrose concentration of 92.87 g/L on CY when NaNO3 and YE were fixed at 3 and 5 g/L, respectively. 
IMPORTANCE This work was undertaken to explore the production of fungal quinones in wild-type strains for use as electrolytes in redox flow batteries. As society converts energy production in a more sustainable direction, it becomes increasingly more important to store sustainable energy in smart ways. Conventional battery technologies imply the use of highly toxic, expensive, and rare metals; thus, quinone redox flow batteries have been proposed to be a desirable alternative. In this study, we explored the possibility of producing the fungal quinone phoenicin in Penicillium spp. by changing the growth parameters. The production of other secondary metabolites and known mycotoxins was also investigated in a metabolomics study. It was shown that phoenicin production was activated by optimizing the carbon concentration of the medium, resulting in high titers and purity of the single metabolite.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0030222
JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
Issue number12
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Quinone
  • Fungal secondary metabolites
  • Phoenicin
  • Phenicin
  • Penicillum
  • Fermentation
  • Cultivation
  • P. atrosanguineum
  • P. manginii
  • P. phoeniceum
  • P. chermesinum
  • Mass spectrometry
  • Feature-based molecular networking
  • Multivariate statistics
  • Full factorial
  • Design of experiment


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