Flavonoids are a very diverse group of plant secondary metabolites with a wide array of activities in plants, as well as in nutrition and health. All flavonoids are derived from a limited number of flavanone intermediates, which serve as substrates for a variety of enzyme activities, enabling the generation of diversity in flavonoid structures. Flavonoids can be characteristic metabolites, like isoflavonoids for legumes. Others, like flavones, occur in nearly all plants. Interestingly, there exist two fundamentally different enzymatic systems able to directly generate flavones from flavanones, flavone synthase (FNS) I and II. We describe an inducible flavone synthase activity from soybean (Glycine max) cell cultures, generating 7,4'-dihydroxyflavone (DHF), which we classified as FNS II. The corresponding full-length cDNA (CYP93B16) was isolated using known FNS II sequences from other plants. Functional expression in yeast allowed the detailed biochemical characterization of the catalytic activity of FNS II. A direct conversion of flavanones such as liquiritigenin, naringenin, and eriodictyol into the corresponding flavones DHF, apigenin and luteolin, respectively, was demonstrated. The enzymatic reaction of FNSII was stereoselective, favouring the (S)- over the (R)-enantiomer. Phylogenetic analyses of the subfamily of plant CYP93B enzymes indicate the evolution of a gene encoding a flavone synthase which originally catalyzed the direct conversion of flavanones into flavones, via early gene duplication into a less efficient enzyme with an altered catalytic mechanism. Ultimately, this allowed the evolution of the legume-specific isoflavonoid synthase activity.
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