Investigations into the molecular evolution of plant terpene, alkaloid, and urushiol biosynthetic enzymes

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Virginia Tech

Plants produce a vast number of low-molecular-weight chemicals (so called secondary or specialized metabolites) that confer a selective advantage to the plant, such as defense against herbivory or protection from changing environmental conditions. Many of these specialized metabolites are used for their medicinal properties, as lead compounds in drug discovery, or to impart our food with different tastes and scents. These chemicals are produced by various pathways of enzyme-mediated reactions in plant cells. It is suspected that enzymes in plant specialized metabolism evolved from those in primary metabolism. Understanding how plants evolved to produce these diverse metabolites is of primary interest, as it can lead to the engineering of plants to be more resistant to both biotic and abiotic stress, or to produce more complex small molecule compounds that are difficult to derive.

To that end, the first objective was to develop a schema for rational protein engineering using meta-analyses of a well-characterized sesquiterpene synthase family encoding two closely-related but different types of enzymes, using quantitative measures of natural selection on amino-acid positions previously demonstrated as important for neofunctionalization between two terpene synthase gene families. The change in the nonsynonymous to synonymous mutation rate ratio (dN/dS) between these two gene families was large at the sites known to be responsible for interconversion. This led to a metric (delta dN/dS) that might have some predictive power. This natural selection-oriented approach was tested on two related enzyme families involved in either nicotine/tropane alkaloid biosynthesis (putrescine N-methyltransferase) or primary metabolism (spermidine synthase) by attempting to interconvert a spermidine synthase to encode putrescine N-methyltransferase activity based upon past patterns of natural selection. In contrast to the HPS/TEAS system, using delta dN/dS metrics between SPDS and PMT and site directed mutagenesis of SPDS did not result in the desired neofunctionalization to PMT activity.

Phylogenetic analyses were performed to investigate the molecular evolution of plant N-methyltransferases involved in three alkaloid biosynthetic pathways. The results from these studies indicated that unlike O-MTs that show monophyletic origins, plant N-MTs showed patterns indicating polyphyletic origins.

To provide the foundation for future molecular-oriented studies of urushiol production in poison ivy, the complete poison ivy root and leaf transcriptomes were sequenced, assembled, and analyzed.

molecular evolution, plant specialized metabolism, urushiol, caffeine, nicotine, N-methyltransferase, alkaloid biosynthesis, protein engineering, terpene synthase, natural selection