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Phytochemistry. 2010 Aug;71(11-12):1305-12. doi: 10.1016/j.phytochem.2010.04.022. Epub 2010 May 20.

The biosynthesis of papaverine proceeds via (S)-reticuline.

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Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, 975 North Warson Road, St. Louis, MO 63132, USA.


Papaverine is one of the earliest opium alkaloids for which a biosynthetic hypothesis was developed on theoretical grounds. Norlaudanosoline (=tetrahydropapaveroline) was claimed as the immediate precursor alkaloid for a multitude of nitrogen containing plant metabolites. This tetrahydroxylated compound was proposed to be fully O-methylated. The resulting tetrahydropapaverine should then aromatize to papaverine. In view of experimental data, this pathway has to be revised. Precursor administration to 8-day-old seedlings of Papaver followed by direct examination of the metabolic fate of the stable-isotope-labeled precursors in the total plant extract, without further purification of the metabolites, led to elucidation of the papaverine pathway in vivo. The central and earliest benzylisoquinoline alkaloid is not the tetraoxygenated norlaudanosoline, but instead the trihydroxylated norcoclaurine that is further converted into (S)-reticuline, the established precursor for poppy alkaloids. The papaverine pathway is opened by the methylation of (S)-reticuline to generate (S)-laudanine. A second methylation at the 3' position of laudanine leads to laudanosine, both known alkaloids from the opium poppy. Subsequent N-demethylation of laudanosine yields the known precursor of papaverine: tetrahydropapaverine. Inspection of the subsequent aromatization reaction established the presence of an intermediate, 1,2-dihydropapaverine, which has been characterized. The final step to papaverine is dehydrogenation of the 1,2-bond, yielding the target compound papaverine. We conclusively show herein that the previously claimed norreticuline does not play a role in the biosynthesis of papaverine.

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