A developmental gradient reveals biosynthetic pathways to eukaryotic toxins in monocot geophytes

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Numerous eukaryotic toxins that accumulate in geophytic plants are valuable in the clinic, yet their biosynthetic pathways have remained elusive. A lead example is the >150 Amaryllidaceae alkaloids (AmAs) including galantamine, an FDA-approved treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. We show that while AmAs accumulate to high levels in many tissues in daffodils, biosynthesis is localized to nascent, growing tissue at the base of leaves. A similar trend is found for the production of steroidal alkaloids (e.g. cyclopamine) in corn lily. This model of active biosynthesis enabled elucidation of a complete set of biosynthetic genes for the production of AmAs. Taken together, our work sheds light on the developmental and enzymatic logic of diverse alkaloid biosynthesis in daffodil. More broadly, it suggests a paradigm for biosynthesis regulation in monocot geophytes where plants are protected from herbivory through active charging of newly formed cells with eukaryotic toxins that persist as aboveground tissue develops.

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