Isoprene, monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes are synthesized and emitted by some plant species, but not all plant species have this ability. These volatile, nonessential isoprenoid compounds share the same biochemical precursors as larger essential isoprenoids such as gibberellic acids and carotenoids. They have many protective and ecological functions for the plant species that produce them, but plant species that do not produce these compounds also grow and reproduce successfully. Here, we develop an 'opportunist hypothesis' suggesting that (i) volatile isoprenoid production takes advantage of dimethylallyl diphosphate (DMAPP) and its isomer isopentenyl diphosphate (IPP), which are synthesized primarily to produce essential isoprenoids, and (ii) conditions affecting synthesis of the higher isoprenoids will affect the production and emission of volatile isoprenoids. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.