(S)-Norcoclaurine synthase (NCS) (EC 22.214.171.124) catalyzes the condensation of 3,4-dihydroxyphenylethylamine (dopamine) and 4-hydroxyphenylacetaldehyde (4-HPAA) as the first committed step in the biosynthesis of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids such as morphine, sanguinarine, and berberine, in plants. A molecular clone encoding NCS was isolated from a meadow rue (Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum) cell suspension culture cDNA library. Heterologous expression of the NCS cDNA, truncated to remove a putative signal peptide, produced a recombinant protein with NCS activity. Recombinant NCS showed sigmoidal saturation kinetics for dopamine (Hill coefficient=1.98), hyperbolic saturation kinetics for 4-HPAA (Km of 700 microm), and pH and temperature optima of 7.0 and 40 degrees C, respectively, all similar to the purified, plant-derived enzyme. NCS exhibits 28-38% identity, and putative structural homology, with the Bet v 1 allergen and pathogenesis-related (PR)10 protein families. NCS also displays 35% identity with the enzyme (HYP1) responsible for hypericin biosynthesis in St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum). The novel catalytic functions of NCS and HYP1 define a new class of plant secondary metabolic enzymes within the Bet v 1 and PR10 protein families. Weaker homology was also detected between NCS and proteins identified in the latex of Papaver somniferum (opium poppy), and in Arabidopsis thaliana. A family of three to five NCS genes is abundantly expressed in the rhizome, followed by petioles and roots of T. flavum. NCS transcripts were localized to the immature endodermis and pericycle in roots, and the protoderm of leaf primordia in rhizomes; thus, the sites of NCS gene expression and berberine accumulation are temporally and spatially separated in roots and rhizomes respectively.