Black pepper, dried green fruit of Piper nigrum L., is a household spice most popular in the world. Piperine, the pungency compound of black pepper, is proposed to partially arise from phenylpropanoid pathway. In the biosynthesis of piperine, 4-coumarate:CoA ligase (4CLs) must play a pivotal role in activating intermediate acids to corresponding CoA thioesters to serve as substrates. Based on transcriptome data, we isolated three P. nigrum 4CL isoforms (Pn4CL1, -2, and -3) from unripe peppercorn. These Pn4CLs were expressed in E. coli for in vitro enzyme assay with putative substrates, namely cinnamic, coumaric, ferulic, piperonylic, 3,4-methylenedioxycinnamic (3,4-MDCA), and piperic acids. Phylogenetic analysis and substrate usage study indicated that Pn4CL1, active towards coumaric and ferulic acids, belongs to class I 4CL for lignin synthesis. Pn4CL2 was a typical cinnamate-specific coumarate:CoA ligase-like (CLL) protein. The Pn4CL3, as class II enzyme, exhibited general 4CL activity towards coumaric and ferulic acids. However, Pn4CL3 was also active towards piperonylic acid, 3,4-MDCA, and piperic acid. Pn4CL3 possessed ∼2.6 times higher catalytic efficiency (kcat/KM) towards 3,4-MDCA and piperic acid than towards coumaric and ferulic acids, suggesting its specific role in piperine biosynthesis. Different substrate preference among the Pn4CL isoforms can be explained by 3-dimensional protein structure modeling, which demonstrated natural variants in amino acid residues of binding pocket to accommodate different substrates. Quantitative PCR analysis of these isoforms indicated that Pn4CL1 transcript level was highest in the roots whereas Pn4CL2 in the fruits and Pn4CL3 in the leaves.

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