Front Plant Sci 9 , 1542 ( 2018)
As a major staple food, maize (Zea mays) is critical to food security. Shifting environmental pressures increasingly hamper crop defense capacities, causing expanded harvest loss. Specialized labdane-type diterpenoids are key components of maize chemical defense and ecological adaptation. Labdane diterpenoid biosynthesis most commonly requires the pairwise activity of class II and class I diterpene synthases (diTPSs) that convert the central precursor geranylgeranyl diphosphate into distinct diterpenoid scaffolds. Two maize class II diTPSs, ANTHER EAR 1 and 2 (ZmAN1/2), have been previously identified as catalytically redundant ent-copalyl diphosphate (CPP) synthases. ZmAN1 is essential for gibberellin phytohormone biosynthesis, whereas ZmAN2 is stress-inducible and governs the formation of defensive kauralexin and dolabralexin diterpenoids. Here, we report the biochemical characterization of the two remaining class II diTPSs present in the maize genome, COPALYL DIPHOSPHATE SYNTHASE 3 (ZmCPS3) and COPALYL DIPHOSPHATE SYNTHASE 4 (ZmCPS4). Functional analysis via microbial co-expression assays identified ZmCPS3 as a (+)-CPP synthase, with functionally conserved orthologs occurring in wheat (Triticum aestivum) and numerous dicot species. ZmCPS4 formed the unusual prenyl diphosphate, 8,13-CPP (labda-8,13-dien-15-yl diphosphate), as verified by mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance. As a minor product, ZmCPS4 also produced labda-13-en-8-ol diphosphate (LPP). Root gene expression profiles did not indicate an inducible role of ZmCPS3 in maize stress responses. By contrast, ZmCPS4 showed a pattern of inducible gene expression in roots exposed to oxidative stress, supporting a possible role in abiotic stress responses. Identification of the catalytic activities of ZmCPS3 and ZmCPS4 clarifies the first committed reactions controlling the diversity of defensive diterpenoids in maize, and suggests the existence of additional yet undiscovered diterpenoid pathways.