The essential oil of chamomile, one of the oldest and agronomically most important medicinal plant species in Europe, has significant antiphlogistic, spasmolytic and antimicrobial activities. It is rich in chamazulene, a pharmaceutically active compound spontaneously formed during steam distillation from the sesquiterpene lactone matricine. Chamomile oil also contains sesquiterpene alcohols and hydrocarbons which are produced by the action of terpene synthases (TPS), the key enzymes in constructing terpene carbon skeletons.
Here, we present the identification and characterization of five TPS enzymes contributing to terpene biosynthesis in chamomile (Matricaria recutita). Four of these enzymes were exclusively expressed in above-ground organs and produced the common terpene hydrocarbons (−)-(E)-β-caryophyllene (MrTPS1), (+)-germacrene A (MrTPS3), (E)-β-ocimene (MrTPS4) and (−)-germacrene D (MrTPS5). A fifth TPS, the multiproduct enzyme MrTPS2, was mainly expressed in roots and formed several Asteraceae-specific tricyclic sesquiterpenes with (−)-α-isocomene being the major product. The TPS transcript accumulation patterns in different organs of chamomile were consistent with the abundance of the corresponding TPS products isolated from these organs suggesting that the spatial regulation of TPS gene expression qualitatively contribute to terpene composition.
The terpene synthases characterized in this study are involved in the organ-specific formation of essential oils in chamomile. While the products of MrTPS1, MrTPS2, MrTPS4 and MrTPS5 accumulate in the oils without further chemical alterations, (+)-germacrene A produced by MrTPS3 accumulates only in trace amounts, indicating that it is converted into another compound like matricine. Thus, MrTPS3, but also the other TPS genes, are good markers for further breeding of chamomile cultivars rich in pharmaceutically active essential oils.