Phytochemistry Reviews

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 1275–1304 | Cite as

Moving beyond the ubiquitous: the diversity and biosynthesis of specialty compounds in plant cuticular waxes

  • Lucas Busta
  • Reinhard JetterEmail author


Cuticular waxes coat aerial plant surfaces to protect tissues against biotic and abiotic stress. The waxes are complex mixtures of fatty-acid-derived lipids formed on modular biosynthetic pathways, with varying chain lengths and oxygen functional groups. The waxes of most plant species contain C26–C32 alcohols, aldehydes, alkanes, and fatty acids together with their alkyl esters, and comparisons between diverse wax mixtures have revealed matching chain length distributions between some of these compound classes. Based on such patterns, the biosynthetic pathways leading to the ubiquitous wax constituents were hypothesized early on, and most of these pathway hypotheses have since been confirmed by biochemical and molecular genetic studies in model species. However, the most abundant wax compounds on many species, including many important crop species, contain secondary functional groups and thus their biosynthesis differs at least in part from the ubiquitous wax compounds with which they co-occur. Here, we survey the chemical structures of these species-specific specialty wax compounds based on a comprehensive CAS SciFinder search and then review relevant reports on wax compositions to help develop and refine hypotheses for their biosynthesis. Across the plant kingdom, specialty wax compounds with one, two, and three secondary functional groups have been identified, with most studies focusing on Angiosperms. Where multiple specialty wax compounds were reported, they frequently occurred as homologous series and/or mixtures of isomers. Among these, it is now possible to recognize series of homologs with predominantly odd- or even-numbered chain lengths, and mixtures of isomers with functional groups on adjacent or on alternating carbon atoms. Using these characteristic molecular geometries of the co-occurring specialty compounds, they can be categorized and, based on the common structural patterns, mechanisms of biosynthesis may be predicted. It seems highly likely that mixtures of isomers with secondary functions on adjacent carbons arise from oxidation catalyzed by P450 enzymes, while mixtures of isomers with alternating group positions are formed by malonate condensation reactions mediated by polyketide synthase or ketoacyl-CoA synthase enzymes, or else by the head-to-head condensation of long-chain acyls. Though it is possible that some enzymes leading to ubiquitous compounds also participate in specialty wax compound biosynthesis, comparisons between co-occurring ubiquitous and specialty wax compounds strongly suggest that, at least in some species, dedicated specialty wax compound machinery exists. This seems particularly true for the diverse species in which specialty wax compounds, most notably nonacosan-10-ol, hentriacontan-16-one (palmitone), and very-long-chain β-diketones, accumulate to high concentrations.


Cuticular wax Wax biosynthesis Very-long-chain Polyketides P450 Fatty acid elongation Nonacosan-10-ol Palmitone β-diketone 





Total carbon number


Head group oxidation state


Coenzyme A


Acyl carrier protein


Ketoacyl-ACP synthase


Ketoacyl-ACP reductase


Hydroxyacyl-ACP dehydratase


Enoyl-ACP reductase


Fatty acid elongase


Ketoacyl-CoA synthase


Ketoacyl-CoA reductase


Hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydratase


Enoyl-CoA reductase






Fatty acyl reductase


Aldehyde decarbonylase


Wax ester synthase


Fatty acid


Fatty acid synthase


Polyketide synthase



The authors would like to thank S. Hessam M. Mehr for expertise in preliminary data analysis using d3.js libraries that made great contributions to the development of the manuscript.

Supplementary material

11101_2017_9542_MOESM1_ESM.docx (32 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 31 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ChemistryUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of BotanyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.Center for Plant Science InnovationLincolnUSA

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