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Open Access Research article

Identification, functional characterization and developmental regulation of sesquiterpene synthases from sunflower capitate glandular trichomes

Jens C Göpfert1*, Gillian MacNevin2, Dae-Kyun Ro2 and Otmar Spring1

Author Affiliations

1 University of Hohenheim, Institute of Botany (210), Garbenstrasse 30, 70599 Stuttgart, Germany

2 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, T2N 1N4, Canada

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BMC Plant Biology 2009, 9:86  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-9-86

Published: 6 July 2009



Sesquiterpene lactones are characteristic metabolites of Asteraceae (or Compositae) which often display potent bioactivities and are sequestered in specialized organs such as laticifers, resin ducts, and trichomes. For characterization of sunflower sesquiterpene synthases we employed a simple method to isolate pure trichomes from anther appendages which facilitated the identification of these genes and investigation of their enzymatic functions and expression patterns during trichome development.


Glandular trichomes of sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) were isolated, and their RNA was extracted to investigate the initial steps of sesquiterpene lactone biosynthesis. Reverse transcription-PCR experiments led to the identification of three sesquiterpene synthases. By combination of in vitro and in vivo characterization of sesquiterpene synthase gene products in Escherichia coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, respectively, two enzymes were identified as germacrene A synthases, the key enzymes of sesquiterpene lactone biosynthesis. Due to the very low in vitro activity, the third enzyme was expressed in vivo in yeast as a thioredoxin-fusion protein for functional characterization. In in vivo assays, it was identified as a multiproduct enzyme with the volatile sesquiterpene hydrocarbon δ-cadinene as one of the two main products with α-muuorlene, β-caryophyllene, α-humulene and α-copaene as minor products. The second main compound remained unidentified. For expression studies, glandular trichomes from the anther appendages of sunflower florets were isolated in particular developmental stages from the pre- to the post-secretory phase. All three sesquiterpene synthases were solely upregulated during the biosynthetically active stages of the trichomes. Expression in different aerial plant parts coincided with occurrence and maturity of trichomes. Young roots with root hairs showed expression of the sesquiterpene synthase genes as well.


This study functionally identified sesquiterpene synthase genes predominantly expressed in sunflower trichomes. Evidence for the transcriptional regulation of sesquiterpene synthase genes in trichome cells suggest a potential use for these specialized cells for the identification of further genes involved in the biosynthesis, transport, and regulation of sesquiterpene lactones.