Saponins are widely distributed plant natural products with vast structural and functional diversity. They are typically composed of a hydrophobic aglycone, which is extensively decorated with functional groups prior to the addition of hydrophilic sugar moieties, to result in surface-active amphipathic compounds. The saponins are broadly classified as triterpenoids, steroids or steroidal glycoalkaloids, based on the aglycone structure from which they are derived. The saponins and their biosynthetic intermediates display a variety of biological activities of interest to the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food sectors. Although their relevance in industrial applications has long been recognized, their role in plants is underexplored. Recent research on modulating native pathway flux in saponin biosynthesis has demonstrated the roles of saponins and their biosynthetic intermediates in plant growth and development. Here, we review the literature on the effects of these molecules on plant physiology, which collectively implicate them in plant primary processes. The industrial uses and potential of saponins are discussed with respect to structure and activity, highlighting the undoubted value of these molecules as therapeutics.
Keywords: Glycoalkaloid; plant development; plant growth; steroid; structure–activity relationships; triterpenoid.