Cyanolipids, Alkyl Cyanides and Isonitriles

1.  Cyanolipids in Seed Oils

Cyanolipids are found as components of the lipids of seeds in some plants from the family Sapindaceae mainly, although some are known from the Hippocastaneaceae and Boraginaceae, where they occur together with conventional acylglycerols. There are four types of cyanolipid based on a five-carbon backbone that comprise a nitrile moiety together with a methylene group or double bond, and one or two hydroxyl groups to which long-chain fatty acids are esterified as illustrated.

Structural formulae of cyanolipids

Thus, type I and II cyanolipids are diesters of 1-cyano-2-hydroxymethylprop-2-en-1-ol and 1-cyano-2-hydroxymethylprop-1-en-3-ol, respectively, while type III and IV cyanolipids are monoesters of 1-cyano-2-hydroxymethylprop-1-ene and 1-cyano-2-methylprop-2-en-1-ol, respectively. Of these, the type I cyanolipid appears to be most abundant, although it is often accompanied by the type II. The type III cyanolipid is only found with type II, while type IV is comparatively rare. It is important to note that type I and II cyanolipids are cyanohydrins with the cyanohydrin hydroxyl group esterified, and that they have a chiral centre, while type II and III cyanolipids are simply α,β-unsaturated nitriles and they do not have a chiral centre.

Analogous glycosidic structures (cyanoglycosides) occur in the same seeds, i.e., with a glycosidic bond to glucose instead of the ester bond, and the two classes of compound are certainly related biosynthetically.

Cyanolipids occur in seeds together with conventional triacylglycerols, with the two lipid classes often being present in comparable amounts. The fatty acid compositions are distinctive, depending upon the species, but typically comprise relatively high amounts of oleic (9-18:1), cis-vaccenic (11-18:1), eicosanoic (20:0), eicos-11-enoic (11-20:1) and eicos-13-enoic (paullinic or 13-20:1) acids. The fatty acid compositions of the cyanolipids and triacylglycerols of a representative species from the Sapindaceae are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Fatty acid compositions of the cyanolipids and triacylglycerols of Paullinia cupana v. sorbilis (wt % of the total)
Fatty acid Cyanolipids Triacylglycerols
16:0 2 5
18:0 2 7
9-18:1 7 37
11-18:1 30 21
18:2(n-6) 6 10
20:0 2 4
11-20:1 39 12
13-20:1 7 4
Avato et al., Seed oil composition of Paullinia cupana var. sorbilis (Mart.) Ducke. Lipids, 38, 773-780 (2003);  DOI.

Information on the biosynthesis of the cyanolipids is limited, but it seems clear that leucine is the key precursor. There are a variety of suggestions as to the function of cyanolipids in seeds, and they may be a source of reduced nitrogen for the developing seedling, for example for alkaloid biosynthesis, as they disappear very rapidly on germination; at the same time, the cyanoglycosides increase in concentration. During the development of seedlings of Ungnadia speciosa, the cyanolipids (Type 1 with C20 fatty acids) disappear without liberation of free hydrogen cyanide to the atmosphere. Some are converted to cyanogenic glycosides (26%), but most appear to be converted to non-cyanogenic compounds, possibly amines. Alternatively, cyanolipids may simply have a protective role against attack by animals, insects or fungi by means of the facile release of hydrogen cyanide.

On hydrolysis by acid or base and by enzymes, the cyanohydrins that are released from type I and IV cyanolipids decompose spontaneously with the production of hydrogen cyanide, i.e., they are cyanogenic, as illustrated below for a type IV cyanolipid. This is presumed to be a defence mechanism as such plants are thus rendered toxic both to animal and insect predators.

Hydrolysis of cyanolipids

The various types of cyanolipids can be separated from each other by adsorption chromatography methods, especially thin-layer chromatography. More recently high-temperature gas chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry has enabled separation and identification of the main molecular species of cyanolipids together with those of the triacylglycerols in seed oils. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy of the intact lipids is likewise an invaluable guide to the types of cyanolipids present.

2.  Alkyl Cyanides and Isonitriles

Alkyl cyanides.  The volatile compounds produced cultures of Gram-positive Micromonospora and Gram-negative Pseudomonas species of bacteria include long-chain aliphatic cyanides (nitriles), which can be either unbranched saturated or unsaturated with an omega-7 double bond, such as (Z)-11‑octadecenenitrile, or methyl-branched unsaturated cyanides with the double bond located at C-3, such as (Z)-13-methyltetradec-3-enenitrile. Fatty acids are the biosynthetic precursors, and these are first converted into their amides and then dehydrated. While their functions in the organisms are not yet known, some show antimicrobial activity. Aliphatic polyacetylenes with terminal nitrile groups, termed albanitriles A to G, have been isolated from a marine sponge of the Mycale genus, while alkylthiocyanates have been identified in a number of marine organisms, such as Oceanapia sp.

Formula for an alkyl cyanide and thiocyanate

Isonitrile lipids.  Marine animals produce an extraordinary number of unusual lipids and amongst them is a seemingly unique isonitrile lipid, termed ‘(-)‑actisonitrile’, from the mantle of the nudibranch mollusc Actinocyclus papillatus; it is based on a 1,3-propanediol ether skeleton. As it has cytotoxic properties, this novel lipid may have a defensive function. Sesquiterpenes containing nitrile or isonitrile moieties have been identified in marine invertebrates also.

Formula of actisonitrile

Many pathogenic bacteria, but especially Actinobacteria (including Streptomyces sp.) and Mycobacteria, produce lipopeptides in the form usually of diacyl dipeptides linked to fatty acids with isonitrile substituents. In M. tuberculosis, these have been termed kupyaphores and contain C12 fatty acids with isonitrile substituents, derived biosynthetically from glycine, in position 3 and linked to a dipeptide core of ornithine and phenylalaninol. They are induced during infection and move in and out of cells to protect bacteria from host-mediated nutritional deprivation. By binding to metal ions, they are toxic to their hosts.

Formula of a kupyaphore

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