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Insect Biochem Mol Biol. 2005 Oct;35(10):1083-99.

Acquisition, transformation and maintenance of plant pyrrolizidine alkaloids by the polyphagous arctiid Grammia geneura.

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Institut für Pharmazeutische Biologie der Technischen Universität Braunschweig, Mendelssohnstrasse 1, D-38106 Braunschweig, Germany.


The polyphagous arctiid Grammia geneura appears well adapted to utilize for its protection plant pyrrolizidine alkaloids of almost all known structural types. Plant-acquired alkaloids that are maintained through all life-stages include various classes of macrocyclic diesters (typically occurring in the Asteraceae tribe Senecioneae and Fabaceae), macrocyclic triesters (Apocynaceae) and open-chain esters of the lycopsamine type (Asteraceae tribe Eupatorieae, Boraginaceae and Apocynaceae). As in other arctiids, all sequestered and processed pyrrolizidine alkaloids are maintained as non-toxic N-oxides. The only type of pyrrolizidine alkaloids that is neither sequestered nor metabolized are the pro-toxic otonecine-derivatives, e.g. the senecionine analog senkirkine that cannot be detoxified by N-oxidation. In its sequestration behavior, G. geneura resembles the previously studied highly polyphagous Estigmene acrea. Both arctiids are adapted to exploit pyrrolizidine alkaloid-containing plants as "drug sources". However, unlike E. acrea, G. geneura is not known to synthesize the pyrrolizidine-derived male courtship pheromone, hydroxydanaidal, and differs distinctly in its metabolic processing of the plant-acquired alkaloids. Necine bases obtained from plant acquired pyrrolizidine alkaloids are re-esterified yielding two distinct classes of insect-specific ester alkaloids, the creatonotines, also present in E. acrea, and the callimorphines, missing in E. acrea. The creatonotines are preferentially found in pupae; in adults they are largely replaced by the callimorphines. Before eclosion the creatonotines are apparently converted into the callimorphines by trans-esterification. Open-chain ester alkaloids such as the platynecine ester sarracine and the orchid alkaloid phalaenopsine, that do not possess the unique necic acid moiety of the lycopsamine type, are sequestered by larvae but they need to be converted into the respective creatonotines and callimorphines by trans-esterification in order to be transferred to the adult stage. In the case of the orchid alkaloids, evidence is presented that during this processing the necine base (trachelanthamidine) is converted into its 7-(R)-hydroxy derivative (turneforcidine), indicating the ability of G. geneura to introduce a hydroxyl group at C-7 of a necine base. The creatonotines and callimorphines display a striking similarity to plant necine monoesters of the lycopsamine type to which G. geneura is well adapted. The possible function of insect-specific trans-esterification in the acquisition of necine bases derived from plant acquired alkaloids, especially from those that cannot be maintained through all life-stages, is discussed.

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