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De novo assembly of a fruit transcriptome set identifies AmMYB10 as a key regulator of anthocyanin biosynthesis in Aronia melanocarpa


Aronia is a group of deciduous fruiting shrubs, of the Rosaceae family, native to eastern North America. Interest in Aronia has increased because of the high levels of dietary antioxidants in Aronia fruits. Using Illumina RNA-seq transcriptome analysis, this study investigates the molecular mechanisms of polyphenol biosynthesis during Aronia fruit development. Six A. melanocarpa (diploid) accessions were collected at four fruit developmental stages. De novo assembly was performed with 341 million clean reads from 24 samples and assembled into 90,008 transcripts with an average length of 801 bp. The transcriptome had 96.1% complete according to Benchmarking Universal Single-Copy Orthologs (BUSCOs). The differentially expressed genes (DEGs) were identified in flavonoid biosynthetic and metabolic processes, pigment biosynthesis, carbohydrate metabolic processes, and polysaccharide metabolic processes based on significant Gene Ontology (GO) biological terms. The expression of ten anthocyanin biosynthetic genes showed significant up-regulation during fruit development according to the transcriptomic data, which was further confirmed using qRT-PCR expression analyses. Additionally, transcription factor genes were identified among the DEGs. Using a transient expression assay, we confirmed that AmMYB10 induces anthocyanin biosynthesis. The de novo transcriptome data provides a valuable resource for the understanding the molecular mechanisms of fruit anthocyanin biosynthesis in Aronia and species of the Rosaceae family.

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Plants in the Rosaceae family include a number of economically important fruit crops beneficial for human nutrition [1]. Common pome fruits include Malus Mill. (apple), Pyrus L. (pear) and Cydonia Mill. (quince), along with less commonly known fruits including Sorbus L. (mountain ash), Aronia Med. (chokeberry), Amelanchier Med. (serviceberry), Crataegus L. (hawthorn), and several other woody plants [2]. The three commonly accepted Aronia species include A. arbutifolia (L.) Pers., red chokeberry (tetraploid); A. melanocarpa (Michx.) Elliott, black chokeberry (diploid and tetraploid); and A. prunifolia (Marshall) Reheder, purple chokeberry (triploid and tetraploid). A fourth species of Aronia has been recognized as A. mitschurinii (A.K. Skvortsov & Maitul) (tetraploid) and it is used in commercial fruit production, usually as the cultivars ‘Viking’ or ‘Nero’ [3]. Diploid A. melanocarpa reproduce sexually and are most commonly found in the Northeastern United States, primarily in the New England region [4, 5]. These fruits can easily be identified by the presence of dark-colored fruits in mid- to late summer.

Interest in Aronia is high because of the high levels of polyphenolic compounds, primarily anthocyanins, and high antioxidant activity [6,7,8]. A diet rich in flavonoid and polyphenolic compounds is thought to play an essential role in preventing diseases [9]. Aronia fruits have been shown to have numerous health-promoting activities such as antioxidant, cardioprotective, gastroprotective, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial [10, 11]. Aronia fruits are widely utilized to produce natural food pigments and use in nutritional supplements [12, 13].

Anthocyanins are water-soluble pigments and are an important class of flavonoids representing a large group of secondary metabolites found in plant organisms. They are derived from glycosylated polyphenolic compounds and are responsible for the blue, purple, and red color of various plant tissues [14]. Anthocyanins are primarily located in cell vacuoles, and their color is influenced by the intravacuolar environment. There are more than 600 different anthocyanins and 23 anthocyanidins [15, 16]. The six most commonly found anthocyanidins in plants include pelargonidin, delphinidin, peonidin, malvidin, petunidin and cyanidin [17], with the latter found as the most abundant form in Aronia [18]. Cyanidin forms found in Aronia fruit, from high to low concentration, include cyanidin 3-galactoside (Cy3Gal), cyaniding 3- arbinoside (Cy3A), cyanidin 3-glucoside (Cy3Glu) and cyanidin 3-xyloside (Cy3X), respectively [19].

The flavonoid and anthocyanin biosynthetic pathways have been well characterized in other important fruit crops [20,21,22,23]. Flavonoids are synthesized through the phenylpropanoid pathway by converting phenylalanine into 4-coumaroyl-CoA. This reaction is completed by chalcone synthase (CHS), from which three different classes of flavonoids are synthesized, including anthocyanins. Leucoanthocyanins are converted by leucoanthocyanidin dioxygenase (LDOX/ANS) to anthocyanindins and are further glycosylated by uridine diphosphate (UDP)-glucose:flavonoid-O-glycosyl- transferase (UFGT) to form cyanidin derivatives [24]. The enzymes involved in flavonoid biosynthesis may be acting as a metabolon that influences the overall efficiency and specificity of the pathway, which also indicates that genes in this pathway may be under concerted transcriptional regulation [25,26,27]. Transcription factors, including R2R3 MYB proteins, basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH), and WD40 proteins have essential roles in regulating structural genes in the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway [24, 28, 29]. The combinations and interactions of these transcription factors regulate the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway. These structural genes and transcription factors involved in the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway have been characterized in other important fruit crop species [20, 22, 30, 31].

In the present study, six A. melanocarpa accessions were used as the experimental material to establish a database of transcriptome sequences of Aronia fruit using Illumina sequencing. The transcriptome and differential expression analysis were used to identify candidate genes involved in anthocyanin biosynthesis between four fruit developmental stages. Transient transformation analyses confirmed the function of AmMYB10 in regulating anthocyanin biosynthesis. The transcriptomic data sets provide a strong foundation for functional studies on Aronia and will facilitate breeding improved Aronia fruit.


Anthocyanin content measurement during fruit development

Anthocyanin content and concentrations were quantified from the fruit skin of six accessions at four developmental stages. During the progression of fruit development, many fruits will accumulate anthocyanin in their fruits. Consistent with visual appearance, HPLC analysis of fruit skin anthocyanin contents demonstrated significant changes in anthocyanin accumulation profiles between the four developmental stages. The fruits from stage 0 (green fruits) had a total anthocyanin content detected at low levels, only 0.1 mg/g DW. Anthocyanin content increased significantly over the three other developmental stages (Fig. 1A to C). Cy3Gal was the most abundant form of anthocyanin found in Aronia fruits. Similar to previous results [8], accession UC009 at stages 2 and 3 had elevated amounts of cyanidin-3-galactoside and reduced cyanidin-3-arabinoside (Supplementary Table S3). This suggests that UC009 has an altered anthocyanin metabolism than other accessions.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Aronia distribution and anthocyanin accumulation during fruit development. A Map of A. melanocarpa (2x) accessions. B Anthocyanin content and concentration in fruit during four developmental stages. C Developmental stages of A. melanocarpa fruit. (bar = 5 mm)

De novo transcriptome assembly and functional annotation

A total number of 341 million trimmed reads were generated from the 24 samples. 7.6, 8.6, 8.7 and 9.1 million trimmed reads were generated from stages 0, 1, 2 and 3, respectively. Individual transcriptome assemblies were generated for each of the 24 samples. The number of transcripts observed in stage 0, 1, 2 and 3 were 538,868 (N50 of 1226), 571,740 (N50 of 1256), 530,617 (N50 of 1291) and 569,236 (N50 of 1220), respectively (Table 1). The de novo assembly produced 90,008 unigenes and an N50 value of 1695 bp (Supplemental Figure S1A). BUSCO analysis determined the de novo transcriptome had 96.1% complete, 2.3% fragmented and 1.6% missing BUSCOs (Supplementary Figure S1B). Overall, we considered the quality of the RNA-seq dataset to be appropriate for further analysis.

Table 1 Summary of sequence assembly after sequencing

In this present study, a total of 36.6% of the 90,008 assembled Aronia unigenes were annotated to NCBI Plant Protein database or UniProtKB/Swiss-Prot database and 36% were annotated to the Arabidopsis protein database with a gene family assignment and/or similarity search. Based on the NCBI Plant Protein Database and UniProtKB/Swiss-Prot database, of the 19,524 unigenes with a similarity alignment, the Aronia unigenes were homologous to sequences in other species. The highest similarity match was Arabidopsis thaliana (30%), followed by Malus × domestica (26.5%), Pyrus × bretschneideri (22.8%) and Prunus avium (1.3%) (Supplementary Figure S2).

The 20,804 unigenes with sequence homology with 12,496 Arabidopsis proteins were subjected to GO assignments under biological processes, cellular component and molecular function categories using PlantRegMap. A total of 20,756 unigenes were assigned to at least one GO term (Supplementary Table S4 and S5; Supplementary Figure S3). In the category of biological processes, unigenes related to cellular process, metabolic process, response to stimulus, biological regulation and developmental process were predominant. In molecular functions, genes involved catalytic activity, binding, transporter activity and transcription regulator activity were abundantly expressed (Supplementary Figure S3).

In cellular components, genes related to cell, membrane and protein-containing complex were the most abundant classes. KOG is a database of orthologous eukaryotic genes. A total of 22,328 unigenes were annotated using the KOG database and assigned to 25 classifications (Supplementary Table S6). The most abundant identified classes were signal transduction (14.0%), followed by general function (13.7%), post-translational modification, protein turnover and chaperones (11.4%), translation, ribosomal structure and biogenesis (7.9%), function unknown (6.0%), transcription (7.8%), and intracellular trafficking, secretion, and vesicular transport (6.9%) (Supplementary Table S6).

Identification of differently expressed genes (DEGs) functional categorization

To identify DEGs during Aronia fruit development, we analyzed the transcriptome data at four developmental stages. Principal component analysis (PCA) of the DEGs revealed that the developmental stage was a key factor affecting gene expression in all six accessions, accounting for 20.2% of the observed variance (Fig. 2A). In addition, a genotype effect was also observed, explaining about 15.3% of the variance. Six pairwise contrasts between the four developmental stages were performed with DESeq2 [32] and unigenes were considered differentially expressed using an adjusted P-value < 0.05 and absolute log2 fold changes ≥ 1 (Fig. 2B). A total of 5,799 unique unigenes were identified as differentially expressed between the four developmental stages. The DEGs identified in a series of six pairwise comparisons between the four developmental stages 0v1, 0v2, 0v3, 1v2, 1v3 and 2v3 were 277, 441, 1572, 18, 169 and 6, respectively (Fig. 2C).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Analysis of transcriptome data from A. melanocarpa fruit at four developmental stages. A Principal component analysis of the transcriptome data. B MA plots for pairwise differential expression analysis contrasts between the four developmental stages. Points in red are significantly differentially expressed (adjusted P < 0.05). C UpSetR plot of significantly differentially expressed genes (adjusted P < 0.05; log2FoldChange > 2)

Functional annotation of DEGs was conducted using the Aronia differentially expressed protein sequences and blasting them against the Arabidopsis TAIR10 protein database (Supplementary Table S6) and Plant Protein database (Supplementary Table S7). Some of the significantly enriched GO terms under biological process included flavonoid biosynthetic process, flavonoid metabolism, secondary metabolism, response to stimulus and photosynthesis (Fig. 3A). REVIGO analysis revealed a large cluster of GO terms associated with flavonoid biosynthesis, suggesting that genes involved with anthocyanin metabolism are significantly enriched. To identify the active biological pathways in Aronia fruit, KEGG pathways were used to analyze the pathway annotations of unigene sequences. 1,022 unigenes were assigned to 33 biological pathways in DAVID (Supplementary Table S8). These predicted pathways are responsible for the development of biological compounds. Significant (P-value < 0.05) pathways included biosynthesis of secondary metabolites (185 unigenes), phenylpropanoid biosynthesis (36 unigenes), flavonoid biosynthesis (9 unigenes), starch and sucrose metabolism (25 unigenes), and fructose and mannose metabolism (13 unigenes). These results suggest that intensive metabolic activities occur during fruit development and pigmentation in Aronia fruit (Fig. 3B). A total of 2,735 unigenes were annotated using the KOG database and assigned to 25 classifications. Frequently identified classes included general function (15.8%), followed by signal transduction mechanisms (14.8%), post-translational modification, protein turnover and chaperones (10.3%), carbohydrate transport and metabolism (9.3%), secondary metabolites biosynthesis, transport and catabolism (8.2%), lipid transport and metabolism (7.0%), and transcription (6.0%) (Supplementary Table S9).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Functional classification of differentially expressed genes. A REVIGO Visualization of biological process GO term enrichment analysis of DEGs. GO term enrichment was based on PlantRegMap analysis using Fisher’s exact tests. Each circle represents a term with P-value < 0.05. The proximity of terms represents their semantic similarities and the size of the circle represents the size of the term based on Arabidopsis term sizes. The color represents the P-value as calculated by PlantRegMap. B KOG classification. Bars represent the numbers of unigenes assigned into 26 KOG classes. C KEGG classification. Bars represent the numbers of unigenes assigned into 33 KEGG terms

Clustering of unigenes by expression pattern

Fruit development is a complex process that involves synchronized regulation of different metabolic pathways, including hormonal regulation [33], pigmentation [33], sugar metabolism [34] and cell wall metabolism [35]. A set of genes with similar expression patterns tend to be functionally correlated. In this study, novel candidate genes whose functions correlate with the development of different tissues were selected. All 5,799 DEGs were clustered with the hierarchical and K-means method in R software (Supplementary Fig. 4). A heatmap was created to illustrate the variations of gene expression in each tissue (Fig. 4A). As expected, the overall expression of biological replicates was clustered together with similar expression profiles, indicating the reliability of sample collection and analysis.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Clustering analysis of gene expression profiles during fruit developmental stages of A. melanocarpa. A Heat map illustrating the expression profiles of the DEGs. B Cluster analysis of DEGs with the K-means method

A total of four clusters was determined as the optimal number of K-means clusters based on the sum of the squared error test (Fig. 4B and Supplementary Figure S4). The unigenes that were located within the same cluster had similar expression patterns during fruit development. Cluster 1 and 4 showed up-regulation between the four developmental stages, whereas clusters 2 and 3 showed down-regulation. These data reveal that major expression profiles are produced by the dynamic and coordinated transitions in mRNA abundance.

Genes involved in anthocyanin biosynthesis identified from the Aronia transcriptome

Anthocyanin biosynthesis is part of the flavonoid biosynthetic pathway in secondary metabolism. Previous studies have shown that fruit anthocyanin content is correlated with the expression of anthocyanin structural and regulatory genes in apple [36, 37], pear [38], and grape [39]. A detailed diagram of the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway has been illustrated in Fig. 5A. This study identified DEGs involved with the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway by annotating the assembled unigenes with the Arabidopsis protein database and NCBI Plant Protein database against the KEGG database (Supplementary Figure S5). Most genes in the pathway had more than one unique sequence annotated as encoding the same enzyme. Some of the genes in the flavonoid pathway were not found as differentially expressed, possibly due to the genetic diversity between biological replicates. Expression levels of the unigenes showed distinct patterns between the four developmental stages and typically displayed significant upregulation during the ripening process, particularly when the fruit reached stages 2 and 3 (Supplementary Table S10). The expression of these genes might be required for Aronia pigmentation because anthocyanin composition is responsible for changes in fruit color.

Fig. 5
figure 5

A Diagram of the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway. DEGs are highlighted in bold and validated candidate genes are underlined. B Real-time qRT-PCR analysis of expression of structural and regulatory genes involved with anthocyanin biosynthesis at four developmental stages. Bars represent standard error

Phenylalanine ammonia-lyase 2 (AmPAL2; TRINITY_DN14080_c0_g1_i5.p1), cinnamate acid 4-hydroxylase (AmC4H; TRINITY_DN15961_c0_g1_i3.p1) and 4-coumarate-CoA ligase (Am4CL; TRINITY_DN14279_c2_g1_i5.p1) produce the substrate for chalcone synthase (AmCHS; TRINITY_DN15104_c0_g1_i3.p2). The initiation of anthocyanin biosynthesis begins with the CHS enzymatic catalysis forming naringenin chalcone [40]. Chalcone isomerase (AmCHI; TRINITY_DN11846_c0_g1_i1.p3) isomerizes naringenin chalcone to form a flavanone, naringenin [41]. Flavanone-3-hydroxylase (AmF3H; TRINITY_DN10705_c0_g1_i1.p2) catalyzes the hydroxylation of flavanones to dihydrokaempferols which are intermediates in the biosynthesis of flavonols, anthocyanidins, catechins and proanthocyanidins. Flavonoid 3’-hydroxylase (F3’H) further hydroxylates dihydrokaempferols at the 3’ and 5’ ends of the B-ring to produce dihyroquercetin [42]. Dihydroflavonol 4-reductase (AmDFR; TRINITY_DN10073_c0_g1_i3.p1) uses nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) as a cofactor to catalyze the stereo specific reduction of dihydroflavonols to leucoanthocyanidins [43]. Subsequently, anthocyanidin synthase (AmANS; TRINITY_DN17487_c0_g2_i1.p1) converts leucoanthocyanidins into anthocyanidins [44]. The unstable free hydroxyl group at the 3 position of the heterocyclic ring is stabilized by UDP-glucose: flavonoid-3-O-glycosyltransferase (UFGT) forming anthocyanins and allowing them to accumulate in the vacuoles as water-soluble pigments. Previous studies have shown that the UFGT enzyme has been the key regulatory step in anthocyanin biosynthesis in pear [45] and is critical for fruit pigmentation [31, 46]. However, there appears to be a pattern of most genes in the anthocyanin pathway functioning together to control anthocyanin biosynthesis. In the present study, we did not find the UFGT gene involved with anthocyanin biosynthesis to be differentially expressed, indicating that UFGT transcript level is not a limiting factor in Aronia. After synthesis of the anthocyanins, glutathione S-transferase (GST) proteins physically bind to anthocyanins and act as anthocyanin carrier proteins that facilitate transport from the cytoplasm to the vacuole [47]. AmGST (TRINITY_DN13448_c1_g3_i5.p1) had suppressed expression during stage 0 (green fruit) but significantly increased over the three other developmental stages (Supplementary Table S10).

Realtime RT-PCR and correlation analysis of genes involved in anthocyanin biosynthesis

Among all the identified DEGs, those unigenes involved in anthocyanin biosynthesis were closely related to the observed changes in fruit pigmentation during developmental stages. Twelve of these genes were selected for qRT-PCR analysis (Fig. 5B and Supplementary Fig. 5). The real-time qRT-PCR results were, for the most part, consistent with those obtained from DEG analysis (Fig. 5B). However, as shown from the results of differential expression analysis, the real-time qRT-PCR assay shows a significant amount of variation between different accessions, which may be resulted from genetic variation among the accessions collected from the wild.

For the anthocyanin biosynthesis genes, we performed a correlation analysis and found a significant correlation between most candidate genes related to cy3gal, cy3glu, cy3a and total anthocyanin (Fig. 6). AmF3H did not have a significant correlation with any of the cyanidin derivatives. The lack of correlation could be cause by the expression pattern of AmF3H, which exhibited an increase in expression from stage 0 to stage 1, but then plateaued (Supplementary Figure S3). Several genes, including AmPAL2, Am4CL, AmANS and AmGST, showed a significant positive correlation with all cyanidin derivatives. The strong positive correlation provides further evidence that the flavonoid pathway is functioning together to control anthocyanin biosynthesis.

Fig. 6
figure 6

Correlation matrix of cyanidin derivatives and gene expression of candidate genes involved with anthocyanin biosynthesis

Identification of MYB10 as a regulator of anthocyanin biosynthesis

Transcription factors (TFs) have essential roles in regulating secondary metabolism by orchestrating the expression of genes in biosynthetic pathways [48]. There were 272 TF encoding unigenes among the DEGs identified through Aronia fruit development. Several of these TFs were classified into the bHLH (28), ERF (26), MYB (25) and WRKY (15) families (Supplementary figure S6). These groups of TFs may regulate different metabolic pathways, such as in phenylpropanoid and flavonoid biosynthesis.

Previous studies indicated that TFs in the MYB, bHLH and WD40 proteins can form MBW protein complexes in regulating structural genes in the anthocyanin biosynthetic pathway [49]. In this study, we have identified DEGs annotated as R2R3 type MYB TFs involved with anthocyanin biosynthesis. Among these DEGs, TRINITY_DN12211_c0_g1_i1.p1 has close homology to AtMYB75 and PyMYB114 (Pyrus x bretschneideri), which has been shown to regulate fruit anthocyanin biosynthesis [50]. The expression of the AmMYB114 transcription factor significantly increased during the fruit development process (Fig. 5B and Supplementary Table S10). Another MYB gene, TRINITY_DN11093_c1_g2_i1.p1, had close homology to a putative P. x bretschneideri MYB transcription factor, although the function of this gene has not been reported. The AmMYB10 (TRINITY_DN10934_c2_g5_i4.p1), a homolog of the pyMYB10, also showed a slightly increased expression level, which was also confirmed with real-time qRT-PCR using samples from different fruit developmental stages (Fig. 7A).

Fig. 7
figure 7

Expression and transient transformation assays identify AmMYB10 as an activator of anthocyanin biosynthesis leaves. A Real-time RT-PCR analysis showing increased expression of AmMYB10 during fruit development. Expression of AmACTIN was used as a reference gene. Error bars are standard error of three independent biological replicates. B A representative Nicotiana benthamiana leaf image infiltrated with AmbHLH33, AmMYB10, AmMYB114 and AmMYB114s agrobacterium culture. Noting weak anthocyanin accumulation after AmMYB10 infiltration. C Combination of AmMYB10 with AmbHLH33 (MYB10 + b) enhances anthocyanin accumulation, while the combination of AmbHLH33 with either AmMYB114 or AmMYB114s does not activate anthocyanin biosynthesis. D The combination of AmMYB10 with AmMYB114 or AmMYB114s does not affect anthocyanin accumulation. Digital photographs were taken 6 days after infiltration. Bar = 2 cm

To identify and characterize the biological function of the MYBs in regulating anthocyanin biosynthesis in Aronia, we selected the AmMYB114 and AmMYB10 as candidates according to the transcriptome data. Further, paralogs of these two MYBs regulate flavonoid biosynthesis in Rosaceae family species [38, 45, 50, 51]. To study the biological function of these two AmMYBs, we employed transient expression assays using leave infiltration in Nicotiana benthamiana. The coding sequences of AmMYB114 and AmMYB10 were cloned using PCR based approach with gene-specific primers (Supplementary Table S2). Interestingly, the AmMYB114 gene has two alternative splicing forms, as confirmed by sanger sequencing. The shorter splicing form of the AmMYB114 gene (AmMYB114s) is 104 bp shorter due to an additional intron removed from the middle of the AmMYB114 coding sequence, which also causes a switch in the reading frame. The AmMYB114s protein shares 151 amino acids identical to the N-terminal region of the AmMYB114 protein. The AmMYB114s would have an intact MYB domain responsible for DNA binding but without a transcriptional activation domain, which raises the possibility of competing for DNA binding with the AmMYB114.

These three MYB genes, e.g., AmMYB10, AmMYB114 and AmMYB114s, were cloned into the destination vector and transformed into agrobacterium. We cloned AmbHLH33 from Aronia based on sequence homology with MdbHLH33, which interacts with MdMYB10 in Malus domestica [52]. Infiltration experiments using N. bethaminana leaves indicated that AmMYB10 resulted in weak anthocyanin accumulation, indicating activation of anthocyanin biosynthesis (Fig. 7B). We did not detect anthocyanin accumulation in leaves transformed with AmbHLH33, AmMYB114, or AmMYB114s in the transient infiltration assays (Fig. 7B). Combining AmbHLH33 with AmMYB10 enhanced anthocyanin accumulation, indicating that these two proteins may function together in regulating anthocyanin biosynthesis (Fig. 7C). Previous studies reported that PyMYB114 enhance the function of PyMYB10 in Pyrus [50]. In this study, co-transformation of AmMYB114 together with AmMYB10 did not enhance the function of AmMYB10 (Fig. 7D). The AmMYB114s did not show activation function in the transient transformation assay, and it didn’t interfere with the activation function of AmMYB10 neither (Fig. 7D). These experiments indicate that AmMYB10 functions as a bona fide activator of anthocyanin biosynthesis in Aronia.


This study reports the transcriptome analysis of Aronia fruit development using Illumina RNA-sequencing. The Aronia de novo transcriptome with annotation provides a new valuable resource for studying fruit development in Aronia. In this research, a total number of 341 million trimmed reads were generated from the 24 samples. These data especially facilitate the discovery of novel genes in the metabolism and ripening process of Aronia fruits and might also be helpful for studies in closely related species. About 36% of the Aronia unigenes were annotated to either NCBI Plant Protein database or the Arabidopsis protein database, but approximately 63% of unigenes were not annotated. We reasoned this might be either due to non-coding regions or caused by the inadequate length of sequences or the lack of information in databases. The Go analysis indicated that the 20,804 unigenes with sequence homology with 12,496 Arabidopsis proteins were in biological processes, cellular component and molecular function categories.

In the pairwise comparison between the four developmental stages using DESeq2 (Love, Huber, and Anders 2014), we identified a total of 5,799 unique unigenes as differentially expressed genes. A large number of DEGs are involved in fruit development and a group of key genes involved with anthocyanin biosynthesis. Unigenes that code for enzymes from pathways, such as flavonoid biosynthesis, phenylpropanoid biosynthesis that control pigmentation changes during fruit development were identified in this research. None of these candidate genes have been studied or reported to be involved in anthocyanin biosynthesis in Aronia. Future studies will be needed to determine the biological function of these candidate genes.

Additionally, the interaction and relationships between candidate structural genes and transcription factors will need to be investigated. Nevertheless, this research has provided a valuable resource for investigating particular biological processes in fruit development. We do observe a significant amount of expression variation between biological replicates. This could contribute to the biological variation between the replicates. The germplasms were collected from the wild and was grown out in a controlled field setting. Therefore, the genetic variability may be contributing to the variability observed in the expression data.

Anthocyanin biosynthetic pathways are regulated by MYB-bHLH-WD repeat (MBW) complexes [28, 49]. In our transcriptome analysis, AmMYB114 is the one of the most significantly upregulated MYB genes. The paralogs of AmMYB114, such as AtMYB75 in Arabidopsis and PyMYB114 in Pyrus [50], are regulators of anthocyanin biosynthesis in fruit. In this research, we selected AmMYB114 as our major candidate at the beginning. However, the AmMYB114 did not activate anthocyanin biosynthesis in our transient transformation assays, which were performed meticulously and repeated many times. Surprisingly, the AmMYB10, a mildly upregulated MYB gene during the fruit ripening process (Fig. 7A), is necessary and sufficient to activate anthocyanin biosynthesis (Fig. 7B-D). The function of AmMYB10 is enhanced when co-expressed with AmbHLH33 (Fig. 7C), which is consistent with previous reports in apple and pear [52]. In contrast, AmMYB10 did not show a synergistic effect with AmMYB114 in the transient transformation assays, which is different from its paralogs [28, 50]. These experiments indicated that the regulation of Aronia anthocyanin accumulation may have differentiated from other plants in the Rosaceae family.

The AmMYB114s is an alternative splicing form and truncated version of the AmMYB114, with an intact MYB domain but no activation domain. In theory, the AmMYB114s may compete with AmMYB114 protein for DNA binding, therefore affecting the normal function of AmMYB114. In this study, AmMYB114 does not activate anthocyanin biosynthesis and its function in fruit development remains to be discovered. It would be interesting to test if AmMYB114s would interfere with the function of AmMYB114 once the biological function of AmMYB114 has been determined. In this study, the function of AmMYB10 was not affected by co-expression with AmMYB114 or AmMYB114s, further confirming that AmMYB114 may be involved in regulating a different biosynthetic pathway during fruit development. In summary, we have identified AmMYB10 as a functional positive regulator in anthocyanin biosynthesis in Aronia fruit.


Plant material and RNA extraction

Aronia melanocarpa fruits from six accessions (Fig. 1A; Supplementary Table S1) at four different stages of development (Fig. 1B) were harvested from the Aronia germplasm collection in Storrs, CT. The Aronia accessions were identified and collected by Dr. Mark Brand and his group. All plant materials are maintained at the UConn Research Farm and are publicly available for request through the USDA-ARS-NCRPIS using the accession numbers in Supplementary Table S1. All methods were performed in accordance with the relevant guidelines and regulations.

Fruits were collected in the field and immediately transferred to the lab for further processing. Fruit skins were removed, frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored at -80 °C until further use. Total RNA from fruit samples were extracted using a modified CTAB method as described [53]. The concentration of extracted RNA was determined using a NanoDrop-1000 spectrophotometer (Thermo Scientific, Willington, DE) and RNA integrity was evaluated using an Aglient 2100 Bioanalyzer (Agilent Technologies, Santa Clara, CA, USA). Only samples with RIN values above 7.0 were used for library preparation. Libraries were constructed at the University of Connecticut Center for Genome Innovation following the TruSeq Stranded Total Library Prep Kit protocol (Illumina, San Diego, CA). Libraries were prepared for the Illumina HiSeq 2500 in High Output mode (2 × 100 bp). A total of 24 libraries were sequenced across three lanes.

Determination of anthocyanin content

Fruits skin tissue from each of the 24 samples were lyophilized and ground into a powder to measure total anthocyanin content. For each extraction, approximately 30 mg of berry tissue powder was placed into a microcentrifuge tube. Equivolume amounts of 12 mM HCl in ultrapure water and 12 mM HCl in methanol were added to the tubes at a ratio of 20 mg per mL solvent. The sample was mixed on a digital vortex mixer at 3000 rpm for 30 s and sonicated in a 30 0C water bath for 10 min. This mixing and sonicating were repeated twice more to extract anthocyanins. The extract was isolated by centrifuging the sample at 5000 × g for 5 min and decanting the liquid layer into an HPLC vial. Extractions were performed in triplicate. Extracts were analyzed by reverse phase HPLC using a Dionex UltiMate 3000 HPLC equipped with an LPG-3400 quaternary pump, a WPS-3000 analytical autosampler, a DAD- 3000 diode array detector, and an FLD-3100 fluorescence detector, based on a prior method (Dorris et al., 2018). Injections of 10 µL were loaded onto a Kinetex 5 µm EVO C18, 100 Å, 250 X 4.6 mm column (Phenomenex, Torrance, CA, USA) at 15 0C. Anthocyanins were resolved using a binary gradient of formic acid: water (5:95, v:v) (A) and methanol (B). The flow rate was constant at 1 mL/min. The gradient began at 5% B for 1 min, increased to 35% B over 39 min, then to 95% B over 10 min, and remained constant at 95% B for 5 min, then decreased to 5% B over 2 min, and re-equilibrated at 5% B for the remaining 8 min. Absorbance data was collected from 190 to 700 nm, and chromatograms were analyzed at 520 nm to detect anthocyanins. The elution order and spectral characteristics were used to assign the most prominent anthocyanin peaks [19]. Anthocyanin concentration was determined using external calibration over the linear range 1–750 µg cyanidin-3-galactoside equivalents/ mL solution.

De novo transcriptome assembly and differential expression analysis

Paired-end raw reads were filtered to exclude low-complexity reads and reads containing adaptor sequences. Raw reads were quality controlled and trimmed prior to assembly using Sickle ( with a minimum read length of 45 bp and minimum Phred-scaled quality value of 30. The 24 trimmed reads were independently de novo assembled using Trinity [54] with a minimum contig length of 300. TransDecoder [55] was used to determine the optimal open reading frames with homology to known proteins using the PFAM Protein Database [56]. The open reading frames of all transcripts were clustered using USEARCH-UCLUST [57] to find redundancy between the assembled transcripts with a minimum threshold of 80% identity. Trimmed reads from the 24 cDNA libraries were mapped to the assembled unigenes using Bowtie2.

Differential expression analysis of samples was performed using the DESeq2 [32] R package. Unigene expression levels were quantified using the normalized count values from DESeq2. Unigenes differentially expressed between samples were screened using P-value < 0.05 and absolute log2 fold changes ≥ 1 as the threshold.

Hierarchical clustering of DEGs was performed in R using Z-scaled FPKM data and clustering based on Pearson’s correlation and complete linkage clustering. Z-scaled FPKM values were grouped by k-means clustering, four clusters were chosen based on the least within-group sum of squares method.

Validation of de novo assembly by BUSCO

We quantified the completeness of the de novo assembly by comparing the assembled transcript set against a set of highly conserved single-copy orthologs using BUSCO [58]. The number of complete, duplicated and missing fragments were calculated.

Transcriptome annotation

The assembled de novo transcriptome was annotated with the Eukaryote Non-model Transcriptome Annotation Pipeline (EnTAP) [59]. To investigate the potential functions of A. melanocarpa unigenes, we annotated all unigenes using EnTAP with an E-value threshold 10–5 using the NCBI Plant Protein database (release 87), UniProtKB/Swiss-Prot database, EggNOG database [60], PFAM Protein database, Gene Ontology (GO) and Kyoto encyclopedia of genes and genomes (KEGG) [61, 62]. EuKaryotic Orthologous Groups (KOG) were determined by searching proteins against the NCBI KOG database using the WebMGA server [63].

In addition, EnTAP was used with an E-value threshold of 10–3 and query coverage at least 50% against the Arabidopsis thaliana TAIR10 Protein database for functional categorization of unigenes. GO analysis was performed for functional annotation of the entire transcriptome and significantly differentially expressed genes using PlantRegMap software [64]. Our targets are compared with these databases to infer GO annotation at PlantRegMap. KEGG pathway analysis was completed by using TAIR codes in DAVID [65]. Transcription factors (TFs) from the DESeq2 DEGs were identified by matching TAIR codes to the A. thaliana transcription factor database (Plant TFDB v5.0) [64].

Pearson correlation coefficients were calculated between FPKM values and anthocyanin concentrations in R for correlation analysis of candidate genes involved with anthocyanin biosynthesis and expression levels.

qRT-PCR analysis

Twelve unigenes were selected for validation using qRT-PCR. Specific primer pairs for selected genes used in qRT-PCR were designed as shown in Supplementary Table S2. Three micrograms of total RNA were reverse‐transcribed using a Superscript III RT kit (Invitrogen) in a 20 μl reaction system. The cDNA was diluted 50 times and used as the template for qRT–PCR. PCR amplification was performed on an ABI 7900HT real‐time PCR machine using SYBR Green qPCR master mix (Life Technologies). For each reaction, 2 μl diluted cDNA sample was used in a 10 μl reaction system. The PCR reaction program was set according to the manufacturer's instructions (Life Technologies). The Aronia reference gene (β-ACTIN) was used for normalization. The comparative CT method (2-ΔΔCT method) was used to analyze the expression levels of the different genes [66].

Transient transformation of Nicotiana benthamiana leaves

Nicotiana benthamiana plants were grown to six leaves in a growth chamber with a temperature setting of 22 ℃ and a light cycle of 16 h light/8 h dark. Agrobacterium cultures were incubated in LB medium at 28 ℃ overnight. Cells were collected by centrifugation at 5000 rpm for 10 min and resuspended in infiltration buffer (half-strength MS medium supplemented with 2% sucrose and 200 μM acetosyringone and pH was adjusted to 5.6) with a 0.2 of OD600 value. Agrobacterium with constructs of AmMYB10, AmMYB114, and AmMYB114sI, or combined with the AmbHLH33, were infiltrated into N. benthamiana leaves and observed for pigmentation after 4 days. Combinations of AmMYB10 with AmMYB114 or AmMYB114s were also performed to investigate possible synergistic effects between these MYB genes. Digital photographs were taken 6 days after infiltration. To control leaf-to-leaf variabilities, each treatment was repeated at least on three leaves with positive and negative controls.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are available in the NCBI BioProject and Sequence Read Archive under the accession number PRJNA603127. Germplasm can be requested from the USDA-ARS-NCRPIS using the accession numbers in Supplementary Table S1.


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We are grateful to the University of Connecticut Computational Biology Core for providing resources.


This work was supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA (2017–67014-26157). Liam was supported by the 2018 Summer Undergraduate Research Fund at UConn.

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HW conceived and designed the experiments. JM, SW, and LI performed fruit collection, RNA isolation, gene expression and transient assays. JM performed bioinformatic analysis and analyzed the data. JM and HW wrote the manuscript. JM, JW and MB participated in the design of the study. BB, MD and DM performed HPLC. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Huanzhong Wang.

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Supplementary Information

Additional file 1:

Supplementary Table S2. Primer sequences used for qRT-PCR validation of RNA-seq data and cloning.

Additional file 2:

Supplementary Figure S1. Transcriptome assembly length and quality. Supplementary Figure S2. Species distribution of BLAST top hits against the NCBI NR protein database with an E value cut-off of 1e-5. Supplementary Figure S3. Assignment of unigenes into different categories based on GO terms. Supplementary Figure S4. Clustering of candidate genes based on expression pattern correlated with fruit development. Supplementary Figure S5. Expression levels of structural and regulator genes involved with anthocyanin biosynthesis from the fruits of A. melanocarpa (n=6) at four developmental stages. Supplementary Figure S6. Transcription factors distribution in different gene families. Counts of transcription factors within the 5,799 differentially expressed genes were identified by searching the top A. thaliana BLASTx hits for TAIR codes within the transcription factor database (Plant TFDB v3.0).

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Mahoney, J.D., Wang, S., Iorio, L.A. et al. De novo assembly of a fruit transcriptome set identifies AmMYB10 as a key regulator of anthocyanin biosynthesis in Aronia melanocarpa. BMC Plant Biol 22, 143 (2022).

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  • Rosaceae
  • Aronia
  • Anthocyanin
  • Transcriptome
  • Transcription factor