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Eur J Biochem. 1997 May 1;245(3):626-36.

The two facies of pyrrolizidine alkaloids: the role of the tertiary amine and its N-oxide in chemical defense of insects with acquired plant alkaloids.

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Institut für Pharmazeutische Biologie, Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany.


Larvae of Creatonotos transiens (Lepidoptera, Arctiidae) and Zonocerus variegatus (Orthoptera, Pyrgomorphidae) ingest 14C-labeled senecionine and its N-oxide with the same efficiency but sequester the two tracers exclusively as N-oxide. Larvae of the non-sequestering Spodoptera littoralis eliminate efficiently the ingested alkaloids. During feeding on the two alkaloidal forms transient levels of senecionine (but not of the N-oxide) are built up in the haemolymph of S. littoralis larvae. Based on these results, senecionine [18O]N-oxide was fed to C. transiens larvae and Z. variegatus adults. The senecionine N-oxide recovered from the haemolymph of the two insects shows an almost complete loss of 18O label, indicating reduction of the orally fed N-oxide in the guts, uptake of the tertiary alkaloid and its re-N-oxidation in the haemolymph. The enzyme responsible for N-oxidation is a soluble mixed function monooxygenase. It was isolated from the haemolymph of the sequestering arctiid Tyria jacobaeae and purified to electrophoretic homogeneity. The enzyme is a flavoprotein with a native Mr of 200000 and a subunit Mr of 51000. It shows a pH optimum at 7.0, has its maximal activity at a temperature of 40-45 degrees C and an isoelectric point at pH 4.9. The reaction is strictly NADPH-dependent (Km 1.3 microM). From 20 pyrrolizidine alkaloids so far tested as substrates, the enyzme N-oxidizes only alkaloids with structural elements which are essential for hepatotoxic and genotoxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (i.e. 1,2-double bond, esterification of the allylic hydroxyl group, presence of a second free or esterified hydroxyl group at carbon 7). A great variety of related alkaloids and xenobiotics were tested as substrate, none was accepted. The Km values of senecionine, monocrotaline and heliotrine, representing the three main types of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, are 1.3 microM, 12.5 microM and 290 microM, respectively. The novel enzyme was named senecionine N-oxygenase (SNO). The enzyme was partially purified from two other arctiids. The three SNOs show the same general substrate specificity but differ in their affinities towards the main structural types of pyrrolizidine alkaloids. The enzymes from the two generalists (Creatonotos transiens and Arctia caja) display a broader substrate affinity than the enzyme from the specialist (Tyria jacobaeae). The two molecular forms of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, the lipophilic protoxic tertiary amine and its hydrophilic nontoxic N-oxide are discussed in respect to their bioactivation and detoxification in mammals and their role as defensive chemicals in specialized insects. Pyrrolizidine-alkaloid-sequestering insects store the alkaloids as nontoxic N-oxides which are reduced in the guts of any potential insectivore. The lipophilic tertiary alkaloid is absorbed passively and then bioactivated by cytochrome P-450 oxidase.

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