Variable expression of cyanide detoxification and tolerance genes in cyanogenic and acyanogenic white clover (Trifolium repens)

Wen Hsi Kuo, Linda L. Small, Kenneth M. Olsen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Premise: β-Cyanoalanine synthase (β-CAS) and alternative oxidase (AOX) play important roles in the ability of plants to detoxify and tolerate hydrogen cyanide (HCN). These functions are critical for all plants because HCN is produced at low levels during basic metabolic processes, and especially for cyanogenic species, which release high levels of HCN following tissue damage. However, expression of β-CAS and Aox genes has not been examined in cyanogenic species, nor compared between cyanogenic and acyanogenic genotypes within a species. Methods: We used a natural polymorphism for cyanogenesis in white clover to examine β-CAS and Aox gene expression in relation to cyanogenesis-associated HCN exposure. We identified all β-CAS and Aox gene copies present in the genome, including members of the Aox1, Aox2a, and Aox2d subfamilies previously reported in legumes. Expression levels were compared between cyanogenic and acyanogenic genotypes and between damaged and undamaged leaf tissue. Results: β-CAS and Aox2a expression was differentially elevated in cyanogenic genotypes, and tissue damage was not required to induce this increased expression. Aox2d, in contrast, appeared to be upregulated as a generalized wounding response. Conclusions: These findings suggest a heightened constitutive role for HCN detoxification (via elevated β-CAS expression) and HCN-toxicity mitigation (via elevated Aox2a expression) in plants that are capable of cyanogenesis. As such, freezing-induced cyanide autotoxicity is unlikely to be the primary selective factor in the evolution of climate-associated cyanogenesis clines.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere16233
JournalAmerican Journal of Botany
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2023


  • alternative oxidase (AOX)
  • autotoxicity
  • balanced polymorphism
  • cline
  • cyanogenesis
  • Fabaceae
  • nitrogen assimilation
  • Trifolium repens
  • white clover
  • β-cyanoalanine synthase (β-CAS)


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