Genomic Signatures of Specialized Metabolism in Plants

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Science  02 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6183, pp. 510-513
DOI: 10.1126/science.1252076

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Specialized Evolution

Many plants make chemical compounds that are potentially of use to humans, but their evolutionary histories are unknown. Chae et al. (p. 510) examined how algae and land plants have been able to evolve secondary metabolism biochemistry—those compounds produced in response to their environment—in the face of purifying evolutionary pressure to maintain primary and necessary metabolic pathways. Genomic data was used to separate the primary from the secondary metabolism pathway genes and to construct the evolutionary trajectories of secondary metabolism. Secondary metabolic pathways tend to be controlled by clustered, co-regulated sets of newly duplicated and maintained genes.


All plants synthesize basic metabolites needed for survival (primary metabolism), but different taxa produce distinct metabolites that are specialized for specific environmental interactions (specialized metabolism). Because evolutionary pressures on primary and specialized metabolism differ, we investigated differences in the emergence and maintenance of these processes across 16 species encompassing major plant lineages from algae to angiosperms. We found that, relative to their primary metabolic counterparts, genes coding for specialized metabolic functions have proliferated to a much greater degree and by different mechanisms and display lineage-specific patterns of physical clustering within the genome and coexpression. These properties illustrate the differential evolution of specialized metabolism in plants, and collectively they provide unique signatures for the potential discovery of novel specialized metabolic processes.

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