Why do plants produce so many terpenoid compounds?

Published: September 8, 2016

Abstract: All plants synthesize a suite of several hundred terpenoid compounds with roles that include phytohormones, protein modification reagents, anti-oxidants, and more. Different plant lineages also synthesize hundreds of distinct terpenoids, with the total number of such specialized plant terpenoids estimated in the scores of thousands. Phylogenetically restricted terpenoids are implicated in defense or in the attraction of beneficial organisms.

A popular hypothesis is that the ability of plants to synthesize new compounds arose incrementally by selection when, as a result of gradual changes in their biotic partners and enemies, the ‘old’ plant compounds were no longer effective, a process dubbed the ‘coevolutionary arms race’. Another hypothesis posits that often the sheer diversity of such compounds provides benefits that a single compound cannot.

In this article, we review the unique features of the biosynthetic apparatus of terpenes in plants that facilitate the production of large numbers of distinct terpenoids in each species and how facile genetic and biochemical changes can lead to the further diversification of terpenoids. We then discuss evidence relating to the hypotheses that given ecological functions may be enhanced by the presence of mixtures of terpenes and that the acquisition of new functions by terpenoids may favor their retention once the original functions are lost.