Biosynthesis of the Oxygenated Diterpene Nezukol in the Medicinal Plant Isodon Rubescens Is Catalyzed by a Pair of Diterpene Synthases

PLoS One. 2017 Apr 26;12(4):e0176507. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0176507. eCollection 2017.


Plants produce an immense diversity of natural products (i.e. secondary or specialized metabolites) that offer a rich source of known and potentially new pharmaceuticals and other desirable bioproducts. The Traditional Chinese Medicinal plant Isodon rubescens (Lamiaceae) contains an array of bioactive labdane-related diterpenoid natural products. Of these, the ent-kauranoid oridonin is the most prominent specialized metabolite that has been extensively studied for its potent antimicrobial and anticancer efficacy. Mining of a previously established transcriptome of I. rubescens leaf tissue identified seven diterpene synthase (diTPSs) candidates. Here we report the functional characterization of four I. rubescens diTPSs. IrTPS5 and IrTPS3 were identified as an ent-copalyl diphosphate (CPP) synthase and a (+)-CPP synthase, respectively. Distinct transcript abundance of IrTPS5 and the predicted ent-CPP synthase IrTPS1 suggested a role of IrTPS5 in specialized ent-kaurene metabolism possibly en route to oridonin. Nicotiana benthamiana co-expression assays demonstrated that IrTPS4 functions sequentially with IrTPS3 to form miltiradiene. In addition, IrTPS2 converted the IrTPS3 product (+)-CPP into the hydroxylated tricyclic diterpene nezukol not previously identified in I. rubescens. Metabolite profiling verified the presence of nezukol in I. rubescens leaf tissue. The proposed IrTPS2-catalyzed reaction mechanism proceeds via the common ionization of the diphosphate group of (+)-CPP, followed by formation of an intermediary pimar-15-en-8-yl+ carbocation and neutralization of the carbocation by water capture at C-8 to yield nezukol, as confirmed by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) analysis. Oxygenation activity is rare for the family of class I diTPSs and offers new catalysts for developing metabolic engineering platforms to produce a broader spectrum of bioactive diterpenoid natural products.

MeSH terms

  • Alkyl and Aryl Transferases / chemistry
  • Alkyl and Aryl Transferases / classification
  • Alkyl and Aryl Transferases / metabolism*
  • Biocatalysis
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • Diterpenes / chemistry
  • Diterpenes / metabolism*
  • Diterpenes, Kaurane / biosynthesis
  • Diterpenes, Kaurane / chemistry
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Gene Expression
  • Isodon / chemistry
  • Isodon / genetics
  • Isodon / metabolism*
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy
  • Metabolome
  • Phylogeny
  • Plant Leaves / chemistry
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism
  • Plant Proteins / chemistry
  • Plant Proteins / classification
  • Plant Proteins / metabolism*
  • Plants, Medicinal / chemistry
  • Plants, Medicinal / metabolism
  • Tobacco / chemistry
  • Tobacco / metabolism


  • Diterpenes
  • Diterpenes, Kaurane
  • Plant Proteins
  • nezukol
  • Alkyl and Aryl Transferases

Grant support

Financial support for this work by a University of California-Davis Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant (to PZ) and a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (to KAP) is gratefully acknowledged.