Phytoalexins are antibiotics produced by plants that are under attack. Phytoalexins tend to fall into several classes including terpenoids, glycocortesoids and alkaloids; however, researchers often find it convenient to extend the definition to include all phytochemicals that are part of the plant's defensive arsenal.
Phytoalexins produced in plants act as toxins to the attacking organism. They may puncture the cell wall, delay maturation, disrupt metabolism or prevent reproduction of the pathogen in question. However, phytoalexins are ofthen targeted to specific predators, a plant that has anti-insect phytoalexins may not have the ability to repel a fungal attack.
When a plant cell recognizes particles from damaged cells or particles from the pathogen the plant launches a two-pronged resistance: a general short-term response and a delayed long-term specific response.
As part of the induced resistance, the short-term response, the plant deploys free radicals such as superoxide and hydrogen peroxide to kill invading cells. In pathogen interactions a common response called the hypersensitive response or apoptosis compromised cells commit suicide in order to create a physical barrier for the invader.
Long-term resistance, or systemic required resistance (SAR), involves communication of the damaged tissue with the rest of the plant using plant hormones such as jasmonic acid, ethylene, abscisic acid or salicylic acid (bacteria). The reception of the signal leads to global changes within the plant which induces genes that protect from further pathogen intrusion, including enzymes involved in the production of phytoalexins. Often if jasmonates or ethylene (both gaseous hormones) are released from the wounded tissue, neighboring plants also manufacture phytoalexins in response. For herbivores, common vectors for disease, these and other wound response aromatics seem to act as a warning that the plant is no longer edible. Also, In accordance with the old addage, "an enemy of my enemy is my friend", the aromatics also alert natural enemies of the plant invaders that lunch is available.