Background: Flower colour variation is one of the most crucial selection criteria in the breeding of a flowering pot plant, as is also the case for azalea (Rhododendron simsii hybrids). Flavonoid biosynthesis was studied intensively in several species. In azalea, flower colour can be described by means of a 3-gene model. However, this model does not clarify pink-coloration. The last decade gene expression studies have been implemented widely for studying flower colour. However, the methods used were often only semi-quantitative or quantification was not done according to the MIQE-guidelines. We aimed to develop an accurate protocol for RT-qPCR and to validate the protocol to study flower colour in an azalea mapping population.
Results: An accurate RT-qPCR protocol had to be established. RNA quality was evaluated in a combined approach by means of different techniques e.g. SPUD-assay and Experion-analysis. We demonstrated the importance of testing noRT-samples for all genes under study to detect contaminating DNA. In spite of the limited sequence information available, we prepared a set of 11 reference genes which was validated in flower petals; a combination of three reference genes was most optimal. Finally we also used plasmids for the construction of standard curves. This allowed us to calculate gene-specific PCR efficiencies for every gene to assure an accurate quantification. The validity of the protocol was demonstrated by means of the study of six genes of the flavonoid biosynthesis pathway. No correlations were found between flower colour and the individual expression profiles. However, the combination of early pathway genes (CHS, F3H, F3'H and FLS) is clearly related to co-pigmentation with flavonols. The late pathway genes DFR and ANS are to a minor extent involved in differentiating between coloured and white flowers. Concerning pink coloration, we could demonstrate that the lower intensity in this type of flowers is correlated to the expression of F3'H.
Conclusions: Currently in plant research, validated and qualitative RT-qPCR protocols are still rare. The protocol in this study can be implemented on all plant species to assure accurate quantification of gene expression. We have been able to correlate flower colour to the combined regulation of structural genes, both in the early and late branch of the pathway. This allowed us to differentiate between flower colours in a broader genetic background as was done so far in flower colour studies. These data will now be used for eQTL mapping to comprehend even more the regulation of this pathway.