Background: Recent progress toward the elucidation of benzylisoquinoline alkaloid (BIA) metabolism has focused on a small number of model plant species. Current understanding of BIA metabolism in plants such as opium poppy, which accumulates important pharmacological agents such as codeine and morphine, has relied on a combination of genomics and metabolomics to facilitate gene discovery. Metabolomics studies provide important insight into the primary biochemical networks underpinning specialized metabolism, and serve as a key resource for metabolic engineering, gene discovery, and elucidation of governing regulatory mechanisms. Beyond model plants, few broad-scope metabolomics reports are available for the vast number of plant species known to produce an estimated 2500 structurally diverse BIAs, many of which exhibit promising medicinal properties.
Results: We applied a multi-platform approach incorporating four different analytical methods to examine 20 non-model, BIA-accumulating plant species. Plants representing four families in the Ranunculales were chosen based on reported BIA content, taxonomic distribution and importance in modern/traditional medicine. One-dimensional (1)H NMR-based profiling quantified 91 metabolites and revealed significant species- and tissue-specific variation in sugar, amino acid and organic acid content. Mono- and disaccharide sugars were generally lower in roots and rhizomes compared with stems, and a variety of metabolites distinguished callus tissue from intact plant organs. Direct flow infusion tandem mass spectrometry provided a broad survey of 110 lipid derivatives including phosphatidylcholines and acylcarnitines, and high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with UV detection quantified 15 phenolic compounds including flavonoids, benzoic acid derivatives and hydroxycinnamic acids. Ultra-performance liquid chromatography coupled with high-resolution Fourier transform mass spectrometry generated extensive mass lists for all species, which were mined for metabolites putatively corresponding to BIAs. Different alkaloids profiles, including both ubiquitous and potentially rare compounds, were observed.
Conclusions: Extensive metabolite profiling combining multiple analytical platforms enabled a more complete picture of overall metabolism occurring in selected plant species. This study represents the first time a metabolomics approach has been applied to most of these species, despite their importance in modern and traditional medicine. Coupled with genomics data, these metabolomics resources serve as a key resource for the investigation of BIA biosynthesis in non-model plant species.