The diversity of terpenoid compounds produced by plants plays an important role in mediating various plant-herbivore, plant-pollinator, and plant-pathogen interactions. This diversity has resulted from gene duplication and neofunctionalization of the enzymes that synthesize and subsequently modify terpenes. Two diterpene synthases in Norway spruce (Picea abies), isopimaradiene synthase and levopimaradiene/abietadiene synthase, provide the hydrocarbon precursors for most of the diterpene resin acids found in the defensive oleoresin of conifers. Although these paralogous enzymes are 91% identical at the amino acid level, one is a single-product enzyme, whereas the other is a multiproduct enzyme that forms completely different products. We used a rational approach of homology modeling, protein sequence comparison, domain swapping, and a series of reciprocal site-directed mutagenesis to identify the specific residues that direct the different product outcomes. A one-amino acid mutation switched the levopimaradiene/abietadiene synthase into producing isopimaradiene and sandaracopimaradiene and none of its normal products. Four mutations were sufficient to reciprocally reverse the product profiles for both of these paralogous enzymes while maintaining catalytic efficiencies similar to the wild-type enzymes. This study illustrates how neofunctionalization can result from relatively minor changes in protein sequence, increasing the diversity of secondary metabolites important for conifer defense.
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