The biodegradation of steroids is a crucial biochemical process mediated exclusively by bacteria. So far, information concerning the anoxic catabolic pathways of androgens is largely unknown, which has prevented many environmental investigations. In this work, we show that Sterolibacterium denitrificans DSMZ 13999 can anaerobically mineralize testosterone and some C19 androgens. By using a 13C-metabolomics approach and monitoring the sequential appearance of the intermediates, we demonstrated that S. denitrificans uses the 2,3-seco pathway to degrade testosterone under anoxic conditions. Furthermore, based on the identification of a C17 intermediate, we propose that the A-ring cleavage may be followed by the removal of a C2 side chain at C-5 of 17-hydroxy-1-oxo-2,3-seco-androstan-3-oic acid (the A-ring cleavage product) via retro-aldol reaction. The androgenic activities of the bacterial culture and the identified intermediates were assessed using the lacZ-based yeast androgen assay. The androgenic activity in the testosterone-grown S. denitrificans culture decreased significantly over time, indicating its ability to eliminate androgens. The A-ring cleavage intermediate (≤500 μM) did not exhibit androgenic activity, whereas the sterane-containing intermediates did. So far, only two androgen-degrading anaerobes (Sterolibacterium denitrificans DSMZ 13999 [a betaproteobacterium] and Steroidobacter denitrificans DSMZ 18526 [a gammaproteobacterium]) have been isolated and characterized, and both of them use the 2,3-seco pathway to anaerobically degrade androgens. The key intermediate 2,3-seco-androstan-3-oic acid can be used as a signature intermediate for culture-independent environmental investigations of anaerobic degradation of C19 androgens.
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