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Phytochemistry. 2011 Apr;72(6):435-57. doi: 10.1016/j.phytochem.2011.01.015. Epub 2011 Feb 16.

Molecular activities, biosynthesis and evolution of triterpenoid saponins.

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Plant Biochemistry Laboratory, Department of Plant Biology and Biotechnology, Center for Synthetic Biology, VKR Research Centre Pro-Active Plants, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Thorvaldsensvej 40, DK-1871 Frederiksberg C, Copenhagen, Denmark.


Saponins are bioactive compounds generally considered to be produced by plants to counteract pathogens and herbivores. Besides their role in plant defense, saponins are of growing interest for drug research as they are active constituents of several folk medicines and provide valuable pharmacological properties. Accordingly, much effort has been put into unraveling the modes of action of saponins, as well as in exploration of their potential for industrial processes and pharmacology. However, the exploitation of saponins for bioengineering crop plants with improved resistances against pests as well as circumvention of laborious and uneconomical extraction procedures for industrial production from plants is hampered by the lack of knowledge and availability of genes in saponin biosynthesis. Although the ability to produce saponins is rather widespread among plants, a complete synthetic pathway has not been elucidated in any single species. Current conceptions consider saponins to be derived from intermediates of the phytosterol pathway, and predominantly enzymes belonging to the multigene families of oxidosqualene cyclases (OSCs), cytochromes P450 (P450s) and family 1 UDP-glycosyltransferases (UGTs) are thought to be involved in their biosynthesis. Formation of unique structural features involves additional biosynthetical enzymes of diverse phylogenetic background. As an example of this, a serine carboxypeptidase-like acyltransferase (SCPL) was recently found to be involved in synthesis of triterpenoid saponins in oats. However, the total number of identified genes in saponin biosynthesis remains low as the complexity and diversity of these multigene families impede gene discovery based on sequence analysis and phylogeny. This review summarizes current knowledge of triterpenoid saponin biosynthesis in plants, molecular activities, evolutionary aspects and perspectives for further gene discovery.

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