Marine dinoflagellates are the single most important group of algae that produce toxins, which have a global impact on human activities. The toxins are chemically diverse, and include macrolides, cyclic polyethers, spirolides and purine alkaloids. Whereas there is a multitude of studies describing the pharmacology of these toxins, there is limited or no knowledge regarding the biochemistry and molecular genetics involved in their biosynthesis. Recently, however, exciting advances have been made. Expressed sequence tag sequencing studies have revealed important insights into the transcriptomes of dinoflagellates, whereas other studies have implicated polyketide synthase genes in the biosynthesis of cyclic polyether toxins, and the molecular genetic basis for the biosynthesis of paralytic shellfish toxins has been elucidated in cyanobacteria. This review summarises the recent progress that has been made regarding the unusual genomes of dinoflagellates, the biosynthesis and molecular genetics of dinoflagellate toxins. In addition, the evolution of these metabolic pathways will be discussed, and an outlook for future research and possible applications is provided.
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