Missing enzymes in the biosynthesis of the anticancer drug vinblastine in Madagascar periwinkle

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Science  15 Jun 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6394, pp. 1235-1239
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat4100

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How to make bioactive alkaloids

Vinblastine and vincristine are important, expensive anticancer agents that are produced by dimerization of the plant-derived alkaloids catharanthine and vindoline. The enzymes that transform tabersonine into vindoline are known; however, the mechanism by which the scaffolds of catharanthine and tabersonine are generated has been a mystery. Caputi et al. now describe the biosynthetic genes and corresponding enzymes responsible. This resolves a long-standing question of how plant alkaloid scaffolds are synthesized, which is important not only for vinblastine and vincristine biosynthesis, but also for understanding the many other biologically active alkaloids found throughout nature.

Science, this issue p. 1235


Vinblastine, a potent anticancer drug, is produced by Catharanthus roseus (Madagascar periwinkle) in small quantities, and heterologous reconstitution of vinblastine biosynthesis could provide an additional source of this drug. However, the chemistry underlying vinblastine synthesis makes identification of the biosynthetic genes challenging. Here we identify the two missing enzymes necessary for vinblastine biosynthesis in this plant: an oxidase and a reductase that isomerize stemmadenine acetate into dihydroprecondylocarpine acetate, which is then deacetoxylated and cyclized to either catharanthine or tabersonine via two hydrolases characterized herein. The pathways show how plants create chemical diversity and also enable development of heterologous platforms for generation of stemmadenine-derived bioactive compounds.

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