The saponins – polar isoprenoids with important and diverse biological activities

Anne Osbourn ; Rebecca J. M. Goss ; Robert A. Field

Nat Prod Rep 2011, 28 1261-1268

Saponins are polar molecules that consist of a triterpene or steroid aglycone with one or more sugar chains. They are one of the most numerous and diverse groups of plant natural products. These molecules have important ecological and agronomic functions, contributing to pest and pathogen resistance and to food quality in crop plants. They also have a wide range of commercial applications in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical sectors. Although primarily found in plants, saponins are produced by certain other organisms, including starfish and sea cucumbers. The underexplored biodiversity of this class of natural products is likely to prove to be a vital resource for discovery of high-value compounds. This review will focus on the biological activity of some of the best-studied examples of saponins, on the relationship between structure and function, and on prospects for synthesis of ‘‘designer’’ saponins.