Exploring the links between secondary metabolites and leaf spectral reflectance in a diverse genus of Amazonian trees

Paul V.A. Fine, Diego Salazar, Roberta E. Martin, Margaret R. Metz, Tracy M. Misiewicz, Gregory P. Asner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Plant defense chemistry is often hypothesized to drive ecological and evolutionary success in diverse tropical forests, yet detailed characterizations of plant secondary metabolites in tropical plants are logistically challenging. Here, we explore a new integrative approach that combines visible-to-shortwave infrared (VSWIR) spectral reflectance data with detailed plant metabolomics data from 19 Protium (Burseraceae) tree species. Building on the discovery that different Protium species have unique chemistries yet share many secondary metabolites, we devised a method to test for associations between metabolites and VSWIR spectral data. Given species-level variation in metabolite abundance, we correlated the concentration of particular chemicals with the reflectance of the spectral bands in a wavelength band per secondary metabolite matrix. We included 45 metabolites that were shared by at least 5 Protium species and correlated their per-species foliar abundances against each one of 210 wavelength bands of field-measured VSWIR spectra. Finally, we tested whether classes of similar metabolites showed similar relationships with spectral patterns. We found that many secondary metabolites yielded strong correlations with VSWIR spectra of Protium. Furthermore, important Protium metabolite classes such as procyanidins (condensed tannins) and phytosterols were grouped together in a hierarchical clustering analysis (Ward’s algorithm), confirming similarity in their associations with plant spectral patterns. We also found a significant correlation in the phenolics content between juvenile and canopy trees of the same species, suggesting that species-level variation in defense chemistry is consistent across life stages and geographic distribution. We conclude that the integration of spectral and metabolic approaches could represent a powerful and economical method to characterize important aspects of tropical plant defense chemistry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere03362
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021


  • Burseraceae
  • chemical defenses
  • metabolomics
  • Protium
  • secondary metabolites
  • spectranomics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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