New roles for flavonoids, as developmental regulators and/or signalling molecules, have recently been proposed in eukaryotic cells exposed to a wide range of environmental stimuli. In plants, these functions are actually restricted to flavonols, the ancient and widespread class of flavonoids. In mosses and liverworts, the whole set of genes for flavonol biosynthesis – CHS, CHI, F3H, FLS and F3′H – has been detected. The flavonol branch pathway has remained intact for millions of years, and is almost exclusively involved in the responses of plants to a wide array of stressful agents, despite the fact that evolution of flavonoid metabolism has produced >10 000 structures.
Here the emerging functional roles of flavonoids in the responses of present-day plants to different stresses are discussed based on early, authoritative views of their primary functions during the colonization of land by plants. Flavonols are not as efficient as other secondary metabolites in absorbing wavelengths in the 290–320 nm spectral region, but display the greatest potential to keep stress-induced changes in cellular reactive oxygen species homeostasis under control, and to regulate the development of individual organs and the whole plant. Very low flavonol concentrations, as probably occurred in early terrestrial plants, may fully accomplish these regulatory functions.
During the last two decades the routine use of genomic, chromatography/mass spectrometry and fluorescence microimaging techniques has provided new insights into the regulation of flavonol metabolism as well as on the inter- and intracellular distribution of stress-responsive flavonols. These findings offer new evidence on how flavonols may have performed a wide array of functional roles during the colonization of land by plants. In our opinion this ancient flavonoid class is still playing the same old and robust roles in present-day plants.