A study in scarlet: enzymes of ketocarotenoid biosynthesis in the flowers of Adonis aestivalis.

Research paper by Francis X FX Cunningham, Elisabeth E Gantt

Indexed on: 22 Jan '05Published on: 22 Jan '05Published in: The Plant Journal


The red ketocarotenoid astaxanthin (3,3'-dihydroxy-4,4'-diketo-beta,beta-carotene) is widely used as an additive in feed for the pigmentation of fish and crustaceans and is frequently included in human nutritional supplements as well. There is considerable interest in developing a plant-based biological production process for this valuable carotenoid. Adonis aestivalis (Ranunculaceae) is unusual among plants in synthesizing and accumulating large amounts of astaxanthin and other ketocarotenoids. The formation of astaxanthin requires only the addition of a carbonyl at the number 4 carbon of each beta-ring of zeaxanthin (3,3'-dihydroxy-beta,beta-carotene), a carotenoid typically present in the green tissues of higher plants. We screened an A. aestivalis flower library to identify cDNAs that might encode the enzyme that catalyzes the addition of the carbonyls. Two closely related cDNAs selected in this screen were found to specify polypeptides similar in sequence to plant beta-carotene 3-hydroxylases, enzymes that convert beta-carotene (beta,beta-carotene) into zeaxanthin. The Adonis enzymes, however, exhibited neither 4-ketolase nor 3-hydroxylase activity when presented with beta-carotene as the substrate in Escherichia coli. Instead, the products of the Adonis cDNAs were found to modify beta-rings in two distinctly different ways: desaturation at the 3,4 position and hydroxylation of the number 4 carbon. The 4-hydroxylated carotenoids formed in E. coli were slowly metabolized to yield compounds with ketocarotenoid-like absorption spectra. It is proposed that a 3,4-desaturation subsequent to 4-hydroxylation of the beta-ring leads to the formation of a 4-keto-beta-ring via an indirect and unexpected route: a keto-enol tautomerization.