Plant Volatiles


Plants produce an amazing number of chemical compounds that can disperse in the air at ambient temperature. These plant volatiles have served mankind, perhaps since pre‐Neolithic times, as perfumes and flavour compounds. In nature, these compounds attract pollinators and seed dispersers, protect plants through repulsion or intoxication of attacking herbivores, entice predator or parasitoid insects that prey on herbivores, prime defences of neighbouring plants against imminent attack, confer antimicrobial properties critical to defence against pathogens and mitigate oxidative stresses. Plant volatiles are typically classified into four major categories: terpenes, fatty acid derivatives, amino acid derivatives and phenylpropanoid/benzenoid compounds, although a number of species‐ or genus‐specific volatile compounds, such as those found in select species of Alliaceae and Brassicaceae, fall outside these categories. This enormous variety is represented by more than 1700 compounds from 90 species.

Key Concepts

  • Plant volatiles are critical in the attraction of pollinators and seed dispersers.
  • Plants use volatiles to protect themselves from biotic (pests and pathogens) and abiotic (oxidative stress, high temperature) stresses.
  • Plants under herbivore attack can alert neighbouring plant species, priming their chemical defences.
  • Plant volatiles and especially terpenes react rapidly in the atmosphere and contribute to the burdens of tropospheric ozone, methane and secondary aerosols.
  • Plant volatiles are classified according to their metabolic origins as terpenoids, phenylpropanoids/benzenoids, fatty acid derivatives and amino acid derivatives.
  • Biosynthesis of plant volatiles is spatially, developmentally and temporally regulated.
  • Modern techniques for the collection and trapping of plant volatiles (SPME, dynamic headspace sampling) provide sensitive and representative samples for analysis.
  • Plant volatiles serve humankind as perfumes and aroma compounds, natural flavour constituents, food additives/preservatives, chemotherapeutics and anaesthetics.

Keywords: plant volatiles; pollination; terpenes; plant defence; phenylpropanoids; atmospheric chemistry; secondary metabolites; biosynthesis; headspace

Figure 1. Generalised pathway for the synthesis of plant volatiles (volatile compound names are in red).
Figure 2. Structures and plant sources of representative volatile monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes.
Figure 3. The benzenoid network and its relationship to phenylpropanoid metabolism. Solid arrows indicate established biochemical reactions, whereas broken arrows indicate possible steps not yet described. Volatile compounds are shown in red.
Figure 4. Schematic summary of possible applications of plant volatiles (volatile organic compounds; VOCs) in smart agriculture and implications for atmospheric processes such as ozone formation and climate change. The plant volatile emission profile could be optimised for sustainable agriculture by creating cocultures of different species and different emitter types. Genetic modification can be applied to improve plant defence and prevent negative atmospheric impacts of large‐scale plantations (such as high isoprene emitting species spp., spp. and Arundo donax).Global climate warming will moreover probably enhance VOC emissions (+). Increased emission of VOCs will enhance aerosol and CCN (cloud condensation nuclei) formation. Enhanced aerosol and CCN concentrations will decrease temperature (–) as a result of increased reflection of sunlight from low clouds. In the presence of NO , VOCs degradation will enhance O3 formation with indirect positive feedback on climate warming (+). Other positive feedbacks are methane lengthening lifetime (+), CO2 production (+) and release of latent heat of water condensation. Modifed after Rosenkranz et al., (2014) published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, and Penuelas and Staudt (2010) © Elsevier.


Akacha NB, Boubaker O and Gargouri M (2005) Production of hexenol in a two‐enzyme system: kinetic study and modelling. Biotechnology Letters 27: 1875–1878.

Amarita F, Yvon M, Nardi M, et al. (2004) Identification and functional analysis of the gene encoding methionine‐γ‐lyase in Brevibacterium linens. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 70: 7348–7354.

Bartlett PN, Elliott JM and Gardner JW (1997) Electronic noses and their application in the food industry. Food Technology 51: 44–47.

Behnke K, Ehlting B, Teuber M, et al. (2007) Transgenic, non‐isoprene‐emitting poplars don't like it hot. Plant Journal 51: 485–499.

Berger RG, Drawert F, Kollmannsberger H and Nitz S (1985) Natural occurrence of undecaenes in some fruits and vegetables. Journal of Food Science 50: 1655–1656, 1667.

Boatright J, Negre F, Chen XL, et al. (2004) Understanding in vivo benzenoid metabolism in petunia petal tissue. Plant Physiology 135: 1993–2011.

Bohlmann J, Meyer‐Gauen G and Croteau R (1998) Plant terpenoid synthases: molecular biology and phylogenetic analysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 95: 4126–4133.

Bondar DC, Beckerich JM and Bonnarme P (2005) Involvement of a branched‐chain aminotransferase in production of volatile sulfur compounds in Yarrowia lipolytica. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 71: 4585–4591.

Buttery RG, Teranishi R and Ling LC (1987) Fresh tomato aroma volatiles – a quantitative study. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 35: 540–544.

Dexter R, Qualley A, Kish CM, et al. (2007) Characterization of a petunia acetyltransferase involved in the biosynthesis of the floral volatile isoeugenol. Plant Journal 49: 265–275.

Dicke M and Sabelis MW (1988) How plants obtain predatory mites as bodyguards. Netherlands Journal of Zoology 38: 148–165.

Dorschner C (1995) Aroma therapy. Harrowsmith Country Life 10: 28–33.

Dudareva N, Murfitt LM, Mann CJ, et al. (2000) Developmental regulation of methyl benzoate biosynthesis and emission in snapdragon flowers. Plant Cell 12: 949–961.

Feussner I and Wasternack C (2002) The lipoxygenase pathway. Annual Review of Plant Biology 53: 275–297.

Frey M, Stettner C, Paré P, et al. (2000) An herbivore elicitor activates the gene for indole emission in maize. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 97: 14801–14806.

Gang DR, Wang JH, Dudareva N, et al. (2001) An investigation of the storage and biosynthesis of phenylpropenes in sweet basil. Plant Physiology 125: 539–555.

Gardner HW (1989) How the lipoxygenase pathway affects the organoleptic properties of fresh fruit and vegetables. In: Min DB and Smouse TH (eds) Flavor Chemistry of Lipid Foods, pp. 98–112. Champaign, IL: American Oil Chemical Society.

Goff SA and Klee HJ (2006) Plant volatile compounds: sensory cues for health and nutritional value? Science 311: 815–819.

Grechkin A (1998) Recent developments in biochemistry of the plant lipoxygenase pathway. Progress in Lipid Research 37: 317–352.

Hansel A, Jordan A, Holzinger R, et al. (1995) Proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry: on‐line trace gas analysis at the ppb level. International Journal of Mass Spectrometry and Ion Processes 149–150: 609–619.

Heil M (2014) Herbivore‐induced plant volatiles: targets, perception and unanswered question. New Phytologist 204: 297–306.

Humphreys JM and Chapple C (2002) Rewriting the lignin roadmap. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 5: 224–229.

Irmisch S, McCormick A, Boeckler AG, et al. (2013) Two herbivore induced cytochrome P450 enzymes CYP79D6 and CYP79D7 catalyze the formation of volatile aldoximes involved in poplar defense. The Plant Cell 25: 4737–4754.

Kapteyn J, Qualley AV, Xie Z, et al. (2007) Evolution of p‐coumaric acid/cinnamic acid carboxylmethyltransferases and their role in the biosynthesis of methylcinnamate. Plant Cell 19: 3212–3229.

Knudsen JT, Eriksson R, Gershenzon J and Stahl B (2006) Diversity and distribution of floral scent. Botanical Review 72: 1–120.

Koeduka T, Fridman E, Gang DR, et al. (2006) Eugenol and isoeugenol, characteristic aromatic constituents of spices, are biosynthesized via reduction of a coniferyl alcohol ester. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 103: 10128–10133.

Long M, Nagegowda DA, Kaminaga Y, et al. (2009) Involvement of snapdragon benzaldehyde dehydrogenase in benzoic acid biosynthesis. Plant Journal 59: 256–265.

Loreto F and Schnitzler JP (2010) Abiotic stresses and induced BVOCs. Trends in Plant Science 15: 154–166.

Loreto F and Velikova V (2001) Isoprene produced by leaves protects the photosynthetic apparatus against ozone damage, quenches ozone products, and reduces lipid peroxidation of cellular membranes. Plant Physiology 127: 1781–1787.

Mayton HS, Olivier C, Vaughn SF and Loria R (1996) Correlation of fungicidal activity of Brassica species with allyl isothiocyanate production in macerated leaf tissue. Phytopathology 86: 267–271.

McGarvey DJ and Croteau R (1995) Terpenoid metabolism. Plant Cell 7: 1015–1026.

Negre F, Kish CM, Boatright J, et al. (2003) Regulation of methylbenzoate emission after pollination in snapdragon and petunia flowers. Plant Cell 15: 2992–3006.

Niederbacher B, Winkler JB and Schnitzler JP (2015) Volatile organic compounds as non‐invasive markers for plant phenotyping. Journal of Experimental Botany 66: 5403–5416.

Ormeno E, Goldstein A and Niinemets U (2014) Extracting and trapping biogenic volatile organic compounds stored in plant species. Trac‐Trends in Analytical Chemistry 30: 978–989.

Penuelas J and Staudt M (2010) BVOCs and global change. Trends in Plant Science 15: 133–144.

Pérez AG, Olías R, Luaces P and Sanz C (2002) Biosynthesis of strawberry aroma compounds through amino acid metabolism. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 50: 4037–4042.

Prestage S, Linforth RST, Taylor AJ, et al. (1999) Volatile production in tomato fruit with modified alcohol dehydrogenase activity. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 79: 131–136.

Qualley AV and Dudareva N (2008) Aromatic volatiles and their involvement in plant defense. In: Schaller A (ed.) Induced Plant Resistance to Herbivory, pp. 409–432. The Netherlands: Springer Science+Business Media B.V.

Reineccius G (2006) Flavor Chemistry and Technology, 2nd edn. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Rosenkranz M, Pugh TAM, Schnitzler JP and Arneth A (2014) Effect of land‐use change and management on BVOC emissions – selecting climate‐smart cultivars. Journal of Experimental Botany 38: 1896–1912.

Rosenkranz M and Schnitzler JP (2013) Genetic engineering of BVOC emissions from trees. In: Niinemets Ü and Monson RK (eds) Biology, Controls and Models of Tree Volatile Organic Compound Emissions. Tree Physiology, vol. 5, pp. 95–118. The Netherlands: Springer.

Rowan DD, Allen JM, Fielder S and Hunt MB (1996) Biosynthesis of 2‐methylbutyl, 2‐methyl‐2‐butenyl, and 2‐methylbutanoate esters in Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples using deuterium‐labeled substrates. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 44: 3276–3285.

Seo HS, Song JT, Cheong JJ, et al. (2001) Jasmonic acid carboxyl methyltransferase: a key enzyme for jasmonate‐regulated plant responses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 98: 4788–4793.

Song MS, Kim DG and Lee SH (2005) Isolation and characterization of a jasmonic acid carboxyl methyltransferase gene from hot pepper (Capsicum annuum L.) Journal of Plant Biology 48: 292–297.

Tholl D, Boland W, Hansel A, et al. (2006) Practical approaches to plant volatile analysis. Plant Journal 45: 540–560.

Tieman DM, Loucas HM, Kim JY, Clark DG and Klee HJ (2007) Tomato phenylacetaldehyde reductases catalyze the last step in the synthesis of the aroma volatile 2‐phenylethanol. Phytochemistry 68 (21): 2660–2669.

Vaughn SF and Boydston RA (1997) Volatile allelochemicals released by crucifer green manures. Journal of Chemical Ecology 23: 2107–2116.

Widhalm JR, Jaini R, Morgan JA and Dudareva N (2015) Rethinking how volatiles are released from plant cells. Trends in Plant Science 20: 545–550.

Wyllie SG, Leach DN, Wang Y and Shewfelt RL (1995) Key aroma compounds in melons – their development and cultivar dependence. In: Roussef RL and Leahy MM (eds) Fruit Flavours, pp. 248–257. ACS Symposium Series 596. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society.

Zhao L, Chang W, Xiao Y, Liu HW and Liu PH (2013) Methylerythritol phosphate pathway of isoprenoid biosynthesi. Annual Review of Biochemistry 82: 497–530.

Further Reading

Dudareva N and Pichersky E (eds) (2006) Biology of Floral Scent, pp. 27–52. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Taylor & Francis.

Harborne JB (1993) Introduction to Ecological Biochemistry, 4th edn. London: Academic Press.

Khan IA and Abourashed EA (2010) Leung's Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients: Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. New York: Wiley.

Knudsen JT, Eriksson R, Gershenzon J and Stahl B (2006) Diversity and distribution of floral scent. Botanical Review 72: 1–120.

Niinemets Ü and Monson RK (eds) (2013) Biology, Controls and Models of Tree Volatile Organic Compound Emissions. Tree Physiology, vol. 5. The Netherlands: Springer.

Robinson T (1991) The Organic Constituents of Higher Plants. North Amherst, MA: Cordus Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Rosenkranz, Maaria, and Schnitzler, Jörg‐Peter(Apr 2016) Plant Volatiles. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000910.pub3]