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 Populus spp., Salix 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 NOx, 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., () published under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, and Penuelas and Staudt () © Elsevier.


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