Ugrás a tartalomhoz

Plant Physiology

Ördög Vince, Molnár Zoltán (2011)

Debreceni Egyetem, Nyugat-Magyarországi Egyetem, Pannon Egyetem

Secondary metabolites in plant defences

Secondary metabolites in plant defences

The sum of all of the chemical reactions that take place in an organism is called metabolism. Most of that carbon, nitrogen, and energy ends up in molecules that are common to all cells and are required for the proper functioning of cells and organisms. These molecules, e.g., lipids, proteins, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates, are called primary metabolites. Unlike animals, however, most plants divert a significant proportion of assimilated carbon and energy to the synthesis of organic molecules that may have no obvious role in normal cell function. These molecules are known as secondary metabolites.

The distinction between primary and secondary metabolites is not always easily made. At the biosynthetic level, primary and secondary metabolites share many of the same intermediates and are derived from the same core metabolic pathways. Secondary metabolites generally, but not always, occur in relatively low quantities and their production may be widespread or restricted to particular families, genera, or even species. They were known, however, to have significant economic and medicinal value and were thus of more than a passing interest to natural products chemists. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly evident that many natural products do have significant ecological functions, such as protection against microbial or insect attack.

Secondary metabolites

For many years the adaptive significance of most secondary metabolites was unknown. These compounds were thought to be simply functionless end products of metabolism, or metabolic wastes. Today we know that many secondary metabolites have important ecological functions in plants:

  • They protect plants against being eaten by herbivores and against being infected by microbial pathogens.

  • They serve as attractants (odor, color, taste) for pollinators and seed-dispersing animals.

  • They function as agents of plant-plant competition and plant-microbe symbioses.

The ability of plants to compete and survive is therefore profoundly affected by the ecological functions of their secondary metabolites.

Secondary metabolism is also relevant to agriculture. The very defensive compounds that increase the reproductive fitness of plants by warding off fungi, bacteria, and herbivores may also make them undesirable as food for humans. Many important crop plants have been artificially selected to produce relatively low levels of these compounds (which, of course, can make them more susceptible to insects and disease).

Plant secondary metabolites can be divided into three chemically distinct groups: terpenes, phenolics, and nitrogen-containing compounds.


The terpenes, or terpenoids, constitute the largest class of secondary metabolites. Most of the diverse substances of this class are insoluble in water. Certain terpenes have well-characterized functions in plant growth or development and so can be considered primary rather than secondary metabolites. For example, the gibberellins, an important group of plant hormones, are diterpenes. Brassinosteroids, another class of plant hormones with growth-regulating functions, originate from triterpenes. The vast majority of terpenes, however, are secondary metabolites presumed to be involved in plant defenses.

Terpenes are toxins and feeding deterrents to many herbivorous insects and mammals; thus they appear to play important defensive roles in the plant kingdom. For example, monoterpene esters called pyrethroids, found in the leaves and flowers of Chrysanthemum species, show striking insecticidal activity. Both natural and synthetic pyrethroids are popular ingredients in commercial insecticides because of their low persistence in the environment and their negligible toxicity to mammals. In conifers such as pine and fir, monoterpenes accumulate in resin ducts found in the needles, twigs, and trunk. These compounds are toxic to numerous insects, including bark beetles, which are serious pests of conifer species throughout the world. Many plants contain mixtures of volatile monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes, called essential oils, that lend a characteristic odor to their foliage. Peppermint, lemon, basil, and sage are examples of plants that contain essential oils. The chief monoterpene constituent of lemon oil is limonene; that of peppermint oil is menthol (Figure 2.21). Essential oils have well-known insect repellent properties.

Figure 2.21 Structures of limonene (A) and menthol (B): these two well-known monoterpenes serve as defenses against insects and other organisms (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)

They are frequently found in glandular hairs that project outward from the epidermis and serve to “advertise” the toxicity of the plant, repelling potential herbivores even before they take a trial bite. Triterpenes that defend plants against vertebrate herbivores include cardenolides and saponins. Cardenolides are glycosides (compounds containing an attached sugar or sugars) that taste bitter and are extremely toxic to higher animals. Saponins are steroid and triterpene glycosides, so named because of their soaplike properties. The presence of both lipid-soluble (the steroid or triterpene) and water-soluble (the sugar) elements in one molecule gives saponins detergent properties.

Phenolic compounds

Plants produce a large variety of secondary compounds that contain a phenol group: a hydroxyl functional group on an aromatic ring. These substances are classified as phenolic compounds, or phenolics. Plant phenolics are a chemically heterogeneous group of nearly 10,000 individual compounds: Some are soluble only in organic solvents, some are water-soluble carboxylic acids and glycosides, and others are large, insoluble polymers. In keeping with their chemical diversity, phenolics play a variety of roles in the plant. Many serve as defenses against herbivores and pathogens. Others function in mechanical support, in attracting pollinators and fruit dispersers, in absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation, or in reducing the growth of nearby competing plants.

The colored pigments of plants provide visual cues that help to attract pollinators and seed dispersers. These pigments are of two principal types: carotenoids and flavonoids. Carotenoids are yellow, orange, and red terpenoid compounds that also serve as accessory pigments in photosynthesis. The flavonoids also include a wide range of colored substances. The most widespread group of pigmented flavonoids is the anthocyanins, which are responsible for most of the red, pink, purple, and blue colors observed in flowers and fruits. Two other groups of flavonoids found in flowers are flavones and flavonols. These flavonoids generally absorb light at shorter wavelengths than do anthocyanins, so they are not visible to the human eye. However, insects such as bees, which see farther into the ultraviolet range of the spectrum than humans do, may respond to flavones and flavonols as visual attractant cues. Isoflavonoids, which are found mostly in legumes, have several different biological activities. Some, such as rotenone, can be used effectively as insecticides, pesticides (e.g., as rat poison), and piscicides (fish poisons). Other isoflavones have anti-estrogenic effects; for example, sheep grazing on clover rich in isoflavonoids often suffer from infertility. The ring system of isoflavones has a three-dimensional structure similar to that of steroids, allowing these substances to bind to estrogen receptors. Isoflavones may also be responsible for the anticancer benefits of foods prepared from soybeans.

A second category of plant phenolic polymers with defensive properties, besides lignin, is the tannins. They are general toxins that can reduce the growth and survival of many herbivores when added to their diets. In addition, tannins act as feeding repellents to a great variety of animals. Mammals such as cattle, deer, and apes characteristically avoid plants or parts of plants with high tannin contents. Unripe fruits, for instance, frequently have very high tannin levels, which deter feeding on the fruits until their seeds are mature enough for dispersal. Herbivores that habitually feed on tannin-rich plant material appear to possess some interesting adaptations to remove tannins from their digestive systems. Plant tannins also serve as defenses against microorganisms.

From leaves, roots, and decaying litter, plants release a variety of primary and secondary metabolites into the environment. The release of secondary compounds by one plant that have an effect on neighboring plants is referred to as allelopathy. If a plant can reduce the growth of nearby plants by releasing chemicals into the soil, it may increase its access to light, water, and nutrients and thus its evolutionary fitness. Allelopathy is currently of great interest because of its potential agricultural applications. Reductions in crop yields caused by weeds or residues from the previous crop may in some cases be a result of allelopathy. An exciting future prospect is the development of crop plants genetically engineered to be allelopathic to weeds.

Nitrogen-containing compounds

A large variety of plant secondary metabolites have nitrogen as part of their structure. Included in this category are such well-known antiherbivore defenses as alkaloids and cyanogenic glycosides, which are of considerable interest because of their toxicity to humans as well as their medicinal properties. Most nitrogenous secondary metabolites are synthesized from common amino acids.

The alkaloids are a large family of more than 15,000 nitrogen-containing secondary metabolites. They are found in approximately 20% of vascular plant species. As a group, alkaloids are best known for their striking pharmacological effects on vertebrate animals. Alkaloids are usually synthesized from one of a few common amino acids – in particular, lysine, tyrosine, or tryptophan. However, the carbon skeleton of some alkaloids contains a component derived from the terpene pathway. Several different types, including nicotine and its relatives (Figure 2.22), are derived from ornithine, an intermediate in arginine biosynthesis. The B vitamin nicotinic acid (niacin) is a precursor of the pyridine (six-membered) ring of this alkaloid. Alkaloids were once thought to be nitrogenous wastes (analogous to urea and uric acid in animals), nitrogen storage compounds, or growth regulators, but there is little evidence to support any of these functions. Most alkaloids are now believed to function as defenses against herbivores, especially mammals, because of their general toxicity and deterrence capability.

Various nitrogenous protective compounds other than alkaloids are found in plants. Two groups of these substances – cyanogenic glycosides and glucosinolates – are not themselves toxic but are readily broken down to give off poisons, some of which are volatile, when the plant is crushed. Cyanogenic glycosides release the well-known poisonous gas hydrogen cyanide (HCN). The presence of cyanogenic glycosides deters feeding by insects and other herbivores such as snails and slugs. As with other classes of secondary metabolites, however, some herbivores have adapted to feed on cyanogenic plants and can tolerate large doses of HCN.

Figure 2.22 Examples of alkaloids, a diverse group of secondary metabolites that contain nitrogen (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)

A second class of plant glycosides, called the glucosinolates, or mustard oil glycosides, break down to release defensive substances. Found principally in the Brassicaceae and related plant families, glucosinolates break down to produce the compounds responsible for the smell and taste of vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, and radishes. Glucosinolate breakdown is catalyzed by a hydrolytic enzyme, called a thioglucosidase or myrosinase, that cleaves glucose from its bond with the sulfur atom. These defensive products function as toxins and herbivore repellents. Like cyanogenic glycosides, glucosinolates are stored in the intact plant separately from the enzymes that hydrolyze them, and they are brought into contact with these enzymes only when the plant is crushed.

Plants and animals incorporate the same 20 amino acids into their proteins. However, many plants also contain unusual amino acids, called nonprotein amino acids, that are not incorporated into proteins. Instead, these amino acids are present in the free form and act as defensive substances. Many nonprotein amino acids are very similar to common protein amino acids. Nonprotein amino acids exert their toxicity in various ways. Some block the synthesis or uptake of protein amino acids. Others, such as canavanine, can be mistakenly incorporated into proteins. After ingestion by an herbivore, canavanine is recognized by the enzyme that normally binds arginine to the arginine transfer RNA molecule, so it becomes incorporated into herbivore proteins in place of arginine. Plants that synthesize nonprotein amino acids are not susceptible to the toxicity of these compounds.

Induced plant defenses against insect herbivores

Plants have developed a wide variety of defensive strategies against insect herbivory. These strategies can be divided into two categories: constitutive defenses and induced defenses. Constitutive defenses are defensive mechanisms that are always present in the plant. They are often species-specific and may exist as stored compounds, conjugated compounds (to reduce toxicity), or precursors of active compounds that can easily be activated if the plant is damaged. Most of the defensive secondary compounds are constitutive defenses. Induced defenses are initiated only after actual damage occurs. They include the production of defensive proteins such as lectins and protease inhibitors as well as the production of toxic secondary metabolites. In principle, induced defenses require a smaller investment of plant resources than constitutive defenses, but they must be activated quickly to be effective.

Plants can recognize specific components of insect saliva

The plant response to damage by insect herbivores involves both a wound response and the recognition of certain insect-derived compounds referred to as elicitors. Although repeated mechanical wounding can induce responses similar to those caused by insect herbivory in some plants, certain molecules in insect saliva can serve as enhancers of this stimulus. In addition, such insect-derived elicitors can trigger signaling pathways systemically, thereby initiating defensive responses in distant regions of the plant in anticipation of further damage. After being regurgitated by an insect, elicitors become part of its saliva and are thus applied to the feeding site during herbivory. Plants then recognize these elicitors and activate a complex signal transduction pathway that induces their defenses.

Jasmonic acid activates many defensive responses

A major signaling pathway involved in most plant defenses against insect herbivores is the octadecanoid pathway, which leads to the production of a plant hormone called jasmonic acid (JA or jasmonate). Jasmonic acid levels rise steeply in response to insect herbivore damage and trigger the production of many proteins involved in plant defenses. Jasmonic acid is synthesized from linolenic acid, which is released from plant membrane lipids. Two organelles participate in jasmonic acid biosynthesis: the chloroplast and the peroxisome. Jasmonic acid is known to induce the transcription of a host of genes involved in defensive metabolism. Among the genes it induces are those that encode key enzymes in all the major pathways for secondary metabolite biosynthesis. Several other signaling compounds – including ethylene, salicylic acid, and methyl salicylate – are also induced by insect herbivory. In many cases, the concerted action of these signaling compounds is necessary for the full activation of induced defenses.

Some plant proteins inhibit herbivore digestion

Among the diverse components of plant defensive arsenals induced by jasmonic acid are proteins that interfere with herbivore digestion. For example, some legumes synthesize a-amylase inhibitors that block the action of the starch-digesting enzyme α-amylase. Other plant species produce lectins, defensive proteins that bind to carbohydrates or carbohydrate-containing proteins. After ingestion by an herbivore, lectins bind to the epithelial cells lining the digestive tract and interfere with nutrient absorption. The best-known antidigestive proteins in plants are the protease inhibitors. Found in legumes, tomatoes, and other plants, these substances block the action of herbivore proteolytic enzymes (proteases).

Herbivore-induced volatiles have complex ecological functions

The induction and release of volatile organic compounds, also called volatiles, in response to insect herbivore damage provides an excellent example of the complex ecological functions of secondary metabolites in nature. The combination of molecules emitted is often specific for each insect herbivore species and typically includes representatives from the three major classes of secondary metabolites: terpenes, phenolics, and alkaloids. Additionally, in response to mechanical damage, all plants emit lipid-derived products such as green-leaf volatiles, a mixture of six-carbon aldehydes, alcohols, and esters. The ecological functions of these volatiles are manifold. In many cases, they attract natural enemies – predators or parasites – of the attacking insect herbivore that utilize the volatiles as cues to find their prey or hosts for their offspring. Volatiles released by the leaf during moth oviposition (egg laying) can act as repellents to other female moths, thereby preventing further egg deposition and herbivory. In addition, many of these compounds, although volatile, remain attached to the surface of the leaf and serve as feeding deterrents because of their taste.

Plant defenses against pathogens

Plants are continuously exposed to a diverse array of pathogens. To be successful, these pathogens have developed various strategies to invade their host plants. Some penetrate the cuticle and cell wall directly by secreting lytic enzymes, which digest these mechanical barriers. Others enter the plant through natural openings like stomata and lenticels. A third category invades the plant through wounding sites, for example those caused by insect herbivores. Additionally, many viruses, as well as other types of pathogens are transferred by insect herbivores, which serve as vectors, and invade the plant from the insect feeding site. Phloem feeders such as whiteflies and aphids deposit pathogens directly into the vascular system, from which they can easily spread throughout the plant.

Some antimicrobial compounds are synthesized before pathogen attack

Several classes of secondary metabolites have strong antimicrobial activity when tested in vitro; thus they have been proposed to function as defenses against pathogens in the intact plant. Among these are saponins, a group of triterpenes thought to disrupt fungal membranes by binding to sterols. Experiments utilizing genetic approaches have demonstrated the role of saponins in defense against pathogens of oat. Mutant oat lines with reduced saponin levels had much less resistance to fungal pathogens than did wild-type oats. Interestingly, one fungal strain that normally grows on oats was able to detoxify one of the principal saponins in the plant.

Infection induces additional antipathogen defenses

After being infected by a pathogen, plants deploy a broad spectrum of defenses against the invading microbes. A common defense is the hypersensitive response, in which cells immediately surrounding the infection site die rapidly, depriving the pathogen of nutrients and preventing its spread. After a successful hypersensitive response, a small region of dead tissue is left at the site of the attempted invasion, but the rest of the plant is unaffected. The hypersensitive response is often preceded by the rapid accumulation of reactive oxygen species and nitric oxide (NO). Cells in the vicinity of the infection synthesize a burst of toxic compounds formed by the reduction of molecular oxygen. Active oxygen species may contribute to host cell death as part of the hypersensitive response or act to kill the pathogen directly. Another defensive response to infection is the formation of hydrolytic enzymes that attack the cell wall of the pathogen. An assortment of glucanases, chitinases, and other hydrolases are induced by fungal invasion. These hydrolytic enzymes belong to a group of proteins that are closely associated with pathogen infection and so are known as pathogenesis-related (PR) proteins.

Phytoalexins often increase after pathogen attack

Perhaps the best-studied response of plants to bacterial or fungal invasion is the synthesis of phytoalexins. Phytoalexins are a chemically diverse group of secondary metabolites with strong antimicrobial activity that accumulate around the site of an infection. Phytoalexin production appears to be a common mechanism of resistance to pathogenic microbes in a wide range of plants. However, different plant families employ different types of secondary products as phytoalexins. For example, in leguminous plants, such as alfalfa and soybean, isoflavonoids are common phytoalexins, whereas in solanaceous plants, such as potato, tobacco, and tomato, various sesquiterpenes are produced as phytoalexins. Phytoalexins are generally undetectable in the plant before infection, but they are synthesized very rapidly after microbial attack. The point of control for the activation of these biosynthetic pathways is usually the initiation of gene transcription. Thus plants do not appear to store any of the enzymatic machinery required for phytoalexin synthesis. Instead, soon after microbial invasion, they begin transcribing and translating the appropriate mRNAs and synthesizing the enzymes de novo.

Some plants recognize specific pathogen-derived substances

Within a species, individual plants often differ greatly in their resistance to microbial pathogens. These differences often lie in the speed and intensity of a plant's reactions. Resistant plants respond more rapidly and more vigorously to pathogens than do susceptible plants. Hence it is important to learn how plants sense the presence of pathogens and initiate defensive responses. A first line of resistance is provided by a system that recognizes broad categories of pathogens. Plants have a variety of receptors that recognize so-called microbe-associated general molecular patterns (MAMPs). These elicitors are evolutionary conserved pathogen-derived molecules such as structural elements from the fungal cell wall or the bacterial flagellum. MAMPs are recognized by specific receptors, which then activate specific plant defensive responses, including massive phytoalexin production. The effectiveness of these MAMP receptors (or pattern recognition receptors) is amazing, considering the fact that with one receptor, a plant can recognize a complete taxonomic group that features a particular MAMP. For example, the flagellin (flg22) receptor FLS2 enables the plant to recognize all mobile (flagellated) bacteria. Similarly, the as yet uncharacterized receptor for pep13 enables plants to recognize all oomycete pathogens. Consequently, those pathogens cannot cause disease. This form of defensive strategy is also referred to as innate immunity.

A single encounter with a pathogen may increase resistance to future attacks

When a plant survives infection by a pathogen at one site, it often develops increased resistance to subsequent attacks at sites throughout the plant and enjoys protection against a wide range of pathogenic species. This phenomenon, called systemic acquired resistance (SAR) (Figure 2.23), develops over several days following initial infection. Systemic acquired resistance appears to result from increased levels of certain PR proteins that we have already mentioned, including chitinases and other hydrolytic enzymes. Although the mechanism of SAR induction is still unknown, one of the endogenous signals involved is likely to be salicylic acid. This benzoic acid derivative accumulates dramatically in the zone of infection after the initial attack, and it is thought to establish SAR in other parts of the plant. Another compound that accumulates at the site of infection and may play a role in SAR is H2O2. However, like salicylic acid, H2O2 is unlikely to function as a long-distance signal.

Figure 2.23 Initial pathogen infection may increase resistance to future pathogen attack through development of systemic acquired resistance (SAR) (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)

Interactions of plants with non-pathogenic bacteria can trigger induced systemic resistance

In contrast to SAR, which occurs as a consequence of actual pathogen infection, induced systemic resistance (ISR) is activated by nonpathogenic microbes (Figure 2.24). Colonialization of the root zone by rhizobacteria, for example, not only stimulates the formation of root nodules, but also initiates a signaling cascade throughout the plant. As a consequence of this signaling cascade, which involves JA and ethylene, protective measures are activated throughout the plant, resulting in an enhanced mode of preparedness against pathogen attack. This form of systemic defense activation does not involve salicylic acid as a signaling compound and does not induce the accumulation of typical PR proteins. While certain defensive measures are immediately put in place by ISR, other defensive responses are initiated only after actual pathogen infection, resulting in a faster and stronger response. The advantage of this defensive strategy lies in reducing the direct investment of resources in defensive measures, which would otherwise affect the performance of the plant, resulting, for example, in reduced growth and yield.

Figure 2.24 Exposure to nonpathogenic microorganisms may increase resistance to future pathogen attack through development of induced systemic resistance (ISR) (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)