A volatolomic approach for studying plant variability: the case of selected Helichrysum species (Asteraceae).

PMID 27502926


The species of Helichrysum sect. Stoechadina (Asteraceae) are well-known for their secondary metabolite content and the characteristic aromatic bouquets. In the wild, populations exhibit a wide phenotypic plasticity which makes critical the circumscription of species and infraspecific ranks. Previous investigations on Helichrysum italicum complex focused on a possible phytochemical typification based on hydrodistilled essential oils. Aims of this paper are three-fold: (i) characterizing the volatile profiles of different populations, testing (ii) how these profiles vary across populations and (iii) how the phytochemical diversity may contribute in solving taxonomic problems. Nine selected Helichrysum populations, included within the H. italicum complex, Helichrysum litoreum and Helichrysum stoechas, were investigated. H. stoechas was chosen as outgroup for validating the method. After collection in the wild, plants were cultivated in standard growing conditions for over one year. Annual leafy shoots were screened in the post-blooming period for the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by means of headspace solid phase microextraction coupled with gas-chromatography and mass spectrometry (HS-SPME-GC/MS). The VOC composition analysis revealed the production of overall 386 different compounds, with terpenes being the most represented compound class. Statistical data processing allowed the identification of the indicator compounds that differentiate the single populations, revealing the influence of the geographical provenance area in determining the volatile profiles. These results suggested the potential use of VOCs as valuable diacritical characters in discriminating the Helichrysum populations. In addition, the cross-validation analysis hinted the potentiality of this volatolomic study in the discrimination of the Helichrysum species and subspecies, highlighting a general congruence with the current taxonomic treatment of the genus. The consistency between this phytochemical approach and the traditional morphometrical analysis in studying the Helichrysum populations supports the validity of the VOC profile in solving taxonomic problems.