A (–)-kolavenyl diphosphate synthase catalyzes the first step of salvinorin A biosynthesis in Salvia divinorum
Conifer diterpene synthases (diTPSs) catalyze the multi-step cycloisomerization of geranylgeranyl diphosphate, or copalyl diphosphate, to a variety of diterpenes in general (i.e., primary) and specialized (i.e., secondary) metabolism. Despite their functional diversity, the known conifer diTPSs are structurally closely related, with variations in three conserved domains, α, β and γ. The catalytic specificity of conifer class I and class I/II diTPSs is predominantly determined by the protein environment of the C-terminal class I active site through stabilization of common and unique carbocation intermediates. Using the crystal structure of Taxus brevifolia taxadiene synthase as template, comparative modeling and mutagenesis of the class I diTPS ent-kaurene synthase from Picea glauca (PgKS) was performed to elucidate the catalytic specificity of PgKS relative to spruce diTPSs of specialized metabolism. N-terminal truncations demonstrated a role for the βγ domain in class I enzyme activity for PgKS, facilitating the closure of the class I active site upon substrate binding. Based on position, Arg476 and Asp736 in the C-terminal α domain of PgKS may contribute to this conformational transition and appear critical for catalysis. Consistent with the mechanism of other diTPSs, the subsequent ionization of a copalyl diphosphate substrate and coordination of the diphosphate group is controlled by strictly conserved residues in the DDxxD and NDIQGCKRE motif of PgKS, such as Asn656 and Arg653. Furthermore, Lys478, Trp502, Met588, Ala615 and Ile619 control the enzymatic activity and specificity of PgKS via carbocation stabilization en route to ent-kaurene. These positions show a high level of amino acid variation, consistent with functional plasticity among conifer diTPSs of different functions in general or specialized metabolism.