(−)-Menthol biosynthesis and molecular genetics
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(−)-Menthol is the most familiar of the monoterpenes as both a pure natural product and as the principal and characteristic constituent of the essential oil of peppermint (Mentha x piperita). In this paper, we review the biosynthesis and molecular genetics of (−)-menthol production in peppermint. In Mentha species, essential oil biosynthesis and storage is restricted to the peltate glandular trichomes (oil glands) on the aerial surfaces of the plant. A mechanical method for the isolation of metabolically functional oil glands, has provided a system for precursor feeding studies to elucidate pathway steps, as well as a highly enriched source of the relevant biosynthetic enzymes and of their corresponding transcripts with which cDNA libraries have been constructed to permit cloning and characterization of key structural genes. The biosynthesis of (−)-menthol from primary metabolism requires eight enzymatic steps, and involves the formation and subsequent cyclization of the universal monoterpene precursor geranyl diphosphate to the parent olefin (−)-(4S)-limonene as the first committed reaction of the sequence. Following hydroxylation at C3, a series of four redox transformations and an isomerization occur in a general “allylic oxidation–conjugate reduction” scheme that installs three chiral centers on the substituted cyclohexanoid ring to yield (−)-(1R, 3R, 4S)-menthol. The properties of each enzyme and gene of menthol biosynthesis are described, as are their probable evolutionary origins in primary metabolism. The organization of menthol biosynthesis is complex in involving four subcellular compartments, and regulation of the pathway appears to reside largely at the level of gene expression. Genetic engineering to up-regulate a flux-limiting step and down-regulate a side route reaction has led to improvement in the composition and yield of peppermint oil.