The evolution of pyrrolizidine alkaloid diversity among and within Jacobaea species

Yangan Chen*, Patrick P.J. Mulder, Onno Schaap, Johan Memelink, Peter G.L. Klinkhamer, Klaas Vrieling

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Plants produce many secondary metabolites showing considerable inter- and intraspecific diversity of concentration and composition as a strategy to cope with environmental stresses. The evolution of plant defenses against herbivores and pathogens can be unraveled by understanding the mechanisms underlying chemical diversity. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are a class of secondary metabolites with high diversity. We performed a qualitative and quantitative analysis of 80 pyrrolizidine alkaloids with liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry of leaves from 17 Jacobaea species including one to three populations per species with 4–10 individuals per population grown under controlled conditions in a climate chamber. We observed large inter- and intraspecific variation in pyrrolizidine alkaloid concentration and composition, which were both species-specific. Furthermore, we sequenced 11 plastid and three nuclear regions to reconstruct the phylogeny of the 17 Jacobaea species. Ancestral state reconstruction at the species level showed mainly random distributions of individual pyrrolizidine alkaloids. We found little evidence for phylogenetic signals, as nine out of 80 pyrrolizidine alkaloids showed a significant phylogenetic signal for Pagel's λ statistics only, whereas no significance was detected for Blomberg's K measure. We speculate that this high pyrrolizidine alkaloid diversity is the result of the upregulation and downregulation of specific pyrrolizidine alkaloids depending on ecological needs rather than gains and losses of particular pyrrolizidine alkaloid biosynthesis genes during evolution.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Systematics and Evolution
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Aug 2020


  • ancestral state reconstruction
  • hierarchical cluster analysis
  • LC-MS/MS
  • phylogenetic signal
  • principal component analysis
  • secondary metabolite diversity

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