On the Evolution of Plant Secondary Chemical Diversity [and Discussion]

Clive G. Jones , Richard D. Firn , S. B. Malcolm


A common-sense evolutionary scenario predicts that well-defended plants should have a moderate diversity of secondary compounds with high biological activity. We contend that plants actually contain a very high diversity of mostly inactive secondary compounds. These patterns result because compounds arising via mutation have an inherently low probability of possessing any biological activity. Only those plants that make a lot of compounds will be well defended because only high diversity confers a reasonable probability of producing active compounds. Inactive compounds are retained, not eliminated, because they increase the probability of producing new active compounds. Plants should therefore have predictable metabolic traits maximizing secondary chemical diversity while minimizing cost. Our hypothesis has important implications to the study of the evolution of plant defence.