Phytochemistry Reviews

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 13-25

First online:

Biotechnology for the production of plant secondary metabolites

  • R. VerpoorteAffiliated withDivision of Pharmacognosy, Leiden/Amsterdam Center for Drug Research, Leiden University
  • , A. ContinAffiliated withDivision of Pharmacognosy, Leiden/Amsterdam Center for Drug Research, Leiden University
  • , J. MemelinkAffiliated withInstitute of Plant Molecular Sciences, Leiden University

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


The production of plant secondary metabolites by means of large-scale culture of plant cells in bioreactors is technically feasible. The economy of such a production is the major bottleneck. For some costly products it is feasible, but unfortunately some of the most interesting products are only in very small amounts or not all produced in plant cell cultures. Screening, selection and medium optimization may lead to 20- to 30-fold increase in case one has producing cultures. In case of phytoalexins, elicitation will lead to high production. But for many of the compounds of interest the production is not inducible by elicitors. The culture of differentiated cells, such as (hairy) root or shoot cultures, is an alternative, but is hampered by problems in scaling up of such cultures. Metabolic engineering offers new perspectives for improving the production of compounds of interest. This approach can be used to improve production in the cell culture, in the plant itself or even production in other plant species or organisms. Studies on the production of terpenoid indole alkaloids have shown that the overexpression of single genes of the pathway may lead for some enzymes to an increased production of the direct product, but not necessarily to an increased alkaloid production. On the other hand feeding of such transgenic cultures with early precursors showed an enormous capacity for producing alkaloids, which is not utilized without feeding precursors. Overexpression of regulatory genes results in the upregulation of a series of enzymes in the alkaloid pathway, but not to an improved flux through the pathway, but feeding loganin does result in increased alkaloid production if compared with wild-type cells. Indole alkaloids could be produced in hairy root cultures of Weigelia by overexpression of tryptophan decarboxylase and strictosidine synthase. Alkaloids could be produced in transgenic yeast overexpressing strictosidine synthase and strictosidine glucosidase growing on medium made out the juice of Symphoricarpus albus berries to which tryptamine is added. Metabolic engineering thus seems a promising approach to improve the production of a cell factory.

biosynthetic pathway mapping economic feasibility large-scale plant cell cultures metabolic engineering optimization productivity regulation biosynthesis terpenoid indole alkaloids