Volatile esters are flavor components of the majority of fruits. The last step in their biosynthesis is catalyzed by alcohol acyltransferases (AATs), which link alcohols to acyl moieties. Full-length cDNAs putatively encoding AATs were isolated from fruit of wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and banana (Musa sapientum) and compared to the previously isolated SAAT gene from the cultivated strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa). The potential role of these enzymes in fruit flavor formation was assessed. To this end, recombinant enzymes were produced in Escherichia coli, and their activities were analyzed for a variety of alcohol and acyl-CoA substrates. When the results of these activity assays were compared to a phylogenetic analysis of the various members of the acyltransferase family, it was clear that substrate preference could not be predicted on the basis of sequence similarity. In addition, the substrate preference of recombinant enzymes was not necessarily reflected in the representation of esters in the corresponding fruit volatile profiles. This suggests that the specific profile of a given fruit species is to a significant extent determined by the supply of precursors. To study the in planta activity of an alcohol acyltransferase and to assess the potential for metabolic engineering of ester production, we generated transgenic petunia (Petunia hybrida) plants overexpressing the SAAT gene. While the expression of SAAT and the activity of the corresponding enzyme were readily detected in transgenic plants, the volatile profile was found to be unaltered. Feeding of isoamyl alcohol to explants of transgenic lines resulted in the emission of the corresponding acetyl ester. This confirmed that the availability of alcohol substrates is an important parameter to consider when engineering volatile ester formation in plants
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