Biochemical Coevolution in Angiosperms

Biochemical Coevolution in Angiosperms
Biochemical Coevolution in Angiosperms
Flowering plants, or angiosperms, produce many compounds that are not directly related to growth and development. These secondary metabolites arise from primary metabolic pathways and act as antiherbivory mechanisms, allelochemicals, or attractants.

Secondary metabolites are biochemicals produced by plants in response to selection pressures. These pressures may be from herbivory, competition, or the need for pollination.

As plants produce compounds to enhance their survival, predators, competitors, and pollinators react and evolve means of adjusting to the plant’s efforts. Chemically simple secondary metabolites may be widespread throughout angiosperm (flowering plant) families, whereas more complex chemicals are often restricted to a single species.

Secondary metabolites are often under high selection pressures, causing individual compounds to have very limited distributions and making them useful in determining the evolutionary relationships between taxonomic groups. Presence of secondary compounds influences the activities of organisms interacting with the plants and, over long periods of time, influences evolution of those species.

Antiherbivory Mechanisms

Antiherbivory chemicals may have a wide range of effects on herbivores (plant-eating animals). Many compounds merely deter grazing. Crystals produced from calcium oxalate (raphides) may be ejected from the vacuoles of cells along with proteinaceous toxins, causing tissue swelling in the mouth of an offending herbivore.

Many monocotyledonous plant families, such as Liliaceae, Heliconiaceae, Rubiaceae, and Arecaceae, produce this type of antiforaging device. This type of defense is especially notable in young tissues that have not developed the toughness found inmature leaves as a herbivory deterrent. Red oaks produce tannins in response to gypsy moth attacks, reducing further herbivory.

Continued feeding on plants containing tannins would lead to slow starvation of a herbivore, as its digestive system could not absorb proteins. The same tannins are not deterrents to squirrels. Squirrels harvest acorns and bury them for later consumption, providing a food source for the squirrel and a dispersal mechanism for the acorn.

Beavers provide another example of the interaction between plant and animal evolution. Some of the beaver’s preferred foods include species that are unpalatable or toxic to other mammals, such as bracken fern, nettles, thistles, and skunk cabbage. This gives the beaver a largely uncontested food source that may involve a metabolic "cost" to the animal.

Other antiherbivory chemicals result in effects more severe than mere deterrence of feeding. Alkaloids such as caffeine, nicotine, and strychnine are potent anti herbivory mechanisms, causing convulsions, comas, and even death in herbivores. These effects may not occur in all herbivores.

Strychnine, for example, is produced by the fruit of some plants that may be eaten by birds without ill effects, but in mammals the same fruit causes failure of the central nervous system and induces seizures.The plant reduces herbivory by mammals, and the seeds get dispersed by birds that are able to detoxify the strychnine.

Grains and seed crops, such as wheat and peanuts, which are particularly attractive to animal and insect herbivores, often produce cyanogenic glycosides that release hydrogen cyanide as the tissues are digested. This compound inhibits cellular respiration, thus killing the herbivore. In each case members of a plant population are consumed by the herbivore, but future generations are spared by the loss.


Allelochemicals are compounds produced by an organism that interfere with the growth or development of another organism.Many phenolic acids act as allelo chemicals, inhibiting root growth of competing species. Many grains are known to release ferulic acid and caffeic acid into the soil, thus inhibiting the germination of weed species.

Phenolics may also act as antifungal compounds, increasing in concentration with fungal infection, thus protecting the plant from further attack. Phenolic compounds produced in tobacco and tomato leaves reduce the growth of these plants’ natural predator, tobacco hornworm, without affecting the growth or activity of the hornworm’s natural predator.

Allelochemicals produced in response to injury by herbivores may also attract predators of the herbivore.Wastes from many species of caterpillars induce the release of terpenoids from green leaves that attract parasitoid insects.

Production of specific combinations of volatiles on the part of the plant signals the predator, which will then reduce further herbivory. The plants have evolved the signal in response to herbivory, and the predators have evolved the ability to detect the signal indicating the location of their host.

Lectins are widely distributed carbohydrate-binding proteins, most commonly found in the Leguminoseae (legume) family. When found in the seeds, these compounds act as broad-spectrum insecticides, whereas in the roots of legumes they maintain bacterial relationships in nitrogen fixing nodules, providing the plant with a source of nitrogen unavailable to plants not producing nodules.


Terpenoids and aliphatic compounds are often the components of essential oils of plants. The volatile nature of these compounds produces a distinctive odor that attracts pollinators. Composition of the volatile compounds often closely matches the natural pheromones produced by the pollinator, mimicking the chemical scent of a female insect in an attempt to attract male pollinators.

Pheromone mimicry is found primarily in members of the Orchidaceae, which are often dependent on single species of wasp for pollination. Other plants may mimic the odor of food. The smell of rotting flesh, attractive to flies, is produced via ammonia and alkylamines, such as cadaverine and putrescine. Methylesters may attract moth pollinators by mimicking the sweet smell of fruit.

Flavonoids often provide color to fruits and flowers and act as visual cues for pollination. Reds, blues, or yellows in varying patterns stand out against a background of green leaves, helping pollinators locate the flower.

Species may have minor chemical differences in their flavonoids that allow for the determination of identity, hybridization between species, and possible coevolution with pollinators. For example, tropical flowers tend to have a more intense red color from anthocyanins than do temperate flowers.

This difference correlates with differences in pollinator preferences, indicating a role by natural selection. Birds, such as hummingbirds, prefer red to yellow, whereas bees are not able to discern reds but are attracted to yellows. Carotenoids, such as xanthophyll and beta-carotene, give fruits and flowers distinctive yellow and orange colors.

Color patterns are also important in attracting pollinators. Butterflies are attracted to red/yellow color patterns. Flavonoid compounds not only impart color but also may modify color patterns by absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light.

Bees are capable of seeing in the UV range, so the presence of flavonoids may alter the bees’ perception of the flower. The patterns may also create cues as to the location of nectaries within the flower, guiding the pollinator to its reward.

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