Plants make numerous small molecules (metabolites) that are either directly toxic to insects, grazing animals, fungi and bacteria, or that stimulate the production of other toxic metabolites. The production of various types of metabolites such as alkaloids, terpenes, and phenolics can be turned on (induced) after damage to the plant occurs. The control mechanisms involve jasmonate, salicylate, phytohormone (plant hormone) ethylene, the volatile (gaseous) methyljasmonate and methylsalicylate signaling pathways.
The signal process is complex. It works on a local level or systemically by traveling throughout the entire plant. It behaves like a network, allowing chemical communication between parts of a plant or within a population of plants in a given locale. With recent developments in metabolic profiling, highly sensitive separation and detection systems are used to create metabolite profiles, high-throughput gene expression analysis is used to detect genes transcripts and rigorous statistical mining resulted in some interesting data that reveals more about how plant defense signaling is controlled.
Researchers used metabolic profiling of overall patterns rather than relying on targeted metabolites. This is important, since previous work focused on a few major metabolites and provided conflicting data. They found differences in profiles from plants exposed to generalist insect feeders versus plants treated with phytohormones. Although both jasmonate and salicylate pathways were activated in each treatment (co-induced), the metabolite patterns were distinct; both treatments lead to a stronger localized rather than systemic response; and there appeared to be a great deal of cross-talk between both pathways influencing pools of precursor metabolites.
Another study followed the spatial accumulation of hydroxycinnamates (phenylpropanoids) and lignins in cell walls of Arabidopsis (a model organism) in response to changes in the ethylene signaling induced by the necrotrophic fungal pathogen, Botrytis cinerea. They correlated metabolic profiles with cytological (cell based) changes to provide biological validation of the analytical data.
When a fungus like Botrytis attacks a plant, it generally destroys cells and eventually the entire plant. In the presence of the fungus, plant genes for the biosynthesis of phenylpropanoids and lignins are expressed (turned on) to modify and reinforce the plant cell wall against fungal penetration. Botrytis induces over 30 ethylene regulated transcription factors – cellular molecules that target and induce underlying genes to become active. So these researchers used a metabolite profile of 3 ethylene mutants, plants that had gene mutations at different DNA sequence points of the ethylene signaling pathway.
It turned out that the mutant plants were less resistant to the fungus and that ethylene resistance, when present, appeared after the fungus had made contact with the plant cell wall and had begun to build the structures necessary to penetrate the cell wall barrier. One phenylpropanoid metabolite in particular, ferulate, seemed to be highly influenced by ethylene signaling. Ferulate cross-links the polymer strands of cell wall polysaccharides, enhancing their structural integrity as a barrier.
So what does this have to do with good medicine? Don’t focus on one or two metabolites to make an efficacious extract. Despite what you hear, we are not trying to mimic “magic bullet” medicine. Expose plants to a full set of ecological challenges to produce a metabolite profile of greater diversity. Mono-crop farming doesn’t cut it. Damn if those hippies had it right after all.