Plant Toxins pp 243-261 | Cite as

Plant Alkaloids: Main Features, Toxicity, and Mechanisms of Action

  • Hélio Nitta Matsuura
  • Arthur Germano Fett-NetoEmail author
Reference work entry
Part of the Toxinology book series (TOXI)


Alkaloids are one of the largest groups of plant secondary metabolites, being present in several economically relevant plant families. Alkaloids encompass neuroactive molecules, such as caffeine and nicotine, as well as life-saving medicines including emetine used to fight oral intoxication and the antitumorals vincristine and vinblastine. Alkaloids can act as defense compounds in plants, being efficient against pathogens and predators due to their toxicity. Fast perception of aggressors and unfavorable environmental conditions, followed by efficient and specific signal transduction for triggering alkaloid accumulation, are key steps in successful plant protection. Toxic effects, in general, depend on specific dosage, exposure time, and individual characteristics, such as sensitivity, site of action, and developmental stage. At times, toxicity effects can be both harmful and beneficial depending on the ecological or pharmacological context. Different strategies are used to study alkaloid metabolism and accumulation. An efficient approach is to monitor gene expression, enzyme activities, and concentration of precursors and of the alkaloid itself during controlled attacks of pathogens and herbivores or upon the simulation of their presence through physical or chemical stimulation. Detailed understanding of alkaloid biosynthesis and mechanisms of action is essential to improve production of alkaloids of interest, to discover new bioactive molecules, and to sustainably exploit them against targets of interest, such as herbivores, pathogens, cancer cells, or unwanted physiological conditions.


Alkaloid Antioxidant Antitumoral Herbivory Pathogen 



This work was elaborated with the support of the Brazilian agencies: National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES), and Rio Grande do Sul State Foundation for Research Support (FAPERGS).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hélio Nitta Matsuura
    • 1
  • Arthur Germano Fett-Neto
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Plant Physiology Laboratory, Center for Biotechnology and Department of BotanyFederal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS)Porto AlegreBrazil

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