Heartwood-specific transcriptome and metabolite signatures of tropical sandalwood (Santalum album) reveal the final step of (Z)-santalol fragrance biosynthesis

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Tropical sandalwood (Santalum album) produces one of the world's most highly prized fragrances, which is extracted from mature heartwood. However, in some places such as southern India, natural populations of this slow-growing tree are threatened by over-exploitation. Sandalwood oil contains four major and fragrance-defining sesquiterpenols: (Z)-α-santalol, (Z)-β-santalol, (Z)-epi-β-santalol and (Z)-α-exo-bergamotol. The first committed step in their biosynthesis is catalyzed by a multi-product santalene/bergamotene synthase. Sandalwood cytochromes P450 of the CYP76F sub-family were recently shown to hydroxylate santalenes and bergamotene; however, these enzymes produced mostly (E)-santalols and (E)-α-exo-bergamotol. We hypothesized that different santalene/bergamotene hydroxylases evolved inS. albumto stereo-selectively produce (E)- or (Z)-sesquiterpenols, and that genes encoding (Z)-specific P450s contribute to sandalwood oil formation if co-expressed in the heartwood with upstream genes of sesquiterpene biosynthesis. This hypothesis was validated by the discovery of a heartwood-specific transcriptome signature for sesquiterpenoid biosynthesis, including highly expressedSaCYP736A167transcripts. We characterized SaCYP736A167 as a multi-substrate P450, which stereo-selectively produces (Z)-α-santalol, (Z)-β-santalol, (Z)-epi-β-santalol and (Z)-α-exo-bergamotol, matching authentic sandalwood oil. This work completes the discovery of the biosynthetic enzymes of key components of sandalwood fragrance, and highlights the evolutionary diversification of stereo-selective P450s in sesquiterpenoid biosynthesis. Bioengineering of microbial systems usingSaCYP736A167, combined with santalene/bergamotene synthase, has potential for development of alternative industrial production systems for sandalwood oil fragrances.

Significance Statement

Tropical sandalwood produces one of the world's most highly prized fragrances. Due to over-exploitation, sandalwood populations are threatened in some of their native locations. Here, we report the discovery of the ultimate and fragrance-defining step of sandalwood oil biosynthesis, enabling an alternative to produce sandalwood oil through metabolic engineering.

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