Engineering of Secondary Metabolism for Human Health and Nutrition

Plants produce a large array of secondary metabolites. These are loosely defined as organic compounds with no essential role in growth and development. Although not absolutely required, these compounds confer some selective advantage for the plant and many have been implicated in the plants' interaction with its immediate environment. Plant secondary compounds are commonly consumed as part of the human diet and they play an important role as phytonutrients as they are assumed to offer protection against certain cancers, cardio-vascular diseases, act as antioxi-dants or bear other health promoting properties. Due to their presumed health benefits, there is growing interest in the development of food crops with tailor-made levels and composition of secondary compounds, designed to exert an optimal biological effect.

Given the wealth of plant secondary compounds relevant for human nutrition, we concentrate here on a few recent examples which highlight the potential of engineering plant secondary metabolism. For a more comprehensive overview, the reader is referred to some excellent recent reviews (e.g. Kinney 2006; Zhu et al. 2007).

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