Background: Individual berries in a grape (Vitis vinifera L.) cluster enter the ripening phase at different times leading to an asynchronous cluster in terms of ripening. The factors causing this variable ripening initiation among berries are not known. Because the influence via hormonal communication of the seed on fruit set and growth is well known across fruit species, differences in berry seed content and resultant quantitative or qualitative differences in the hormone signals to the pericarp likely influence the relative timing of ripening initiation among berries of the cluster.
Results: At the time of the initiation of cluster ripening (véraison), underripe green berries have higher seed content compared to the riper berries and there is a negative correlation between the seed weight-to-berry weight ratio (SB) and the sugar level in berries of a cluster. Auxin levels in seeds relative to the pericarp tissues are two to 12 times higher at pre-ripening stages. The pericarp of berries with high-SB had higher auxin and lower abscisic acid (ABA) levels compared to those with low-SB from two weeks before véraison. In the prevéraison cluster, the expression of auxin-response factor genes was significantly higher in the pericarp of high-SB berries and remained higher until véraison compared to low-SB berries. The expression level of auxin-biosynthetic genes in the pericarp was the same between both berry groups based upon similar expression activity of YUC genes that are rate-limiting factors in auxin biosynthesis. On the other hand, in low-SB berries, the expression of ABA-biosynthetic and ABA-inducible NCED and MYB genes was higher even two weeks before véraison.
Conclusions: Differences in the relative seed content among berries plays a major role in the timing of ripening initiation. Towards the end of berry maturation phase, low and high levels of auxin are observed in the pericarp of low- and high-SB berries, respectively. This results in higher auxin-signaling activity that lasts longer in the pericarp of high-SB berries. In contrast, in low-SB berries, concomitant with an earlier decrease of auxin level, the features of ripening initiation, such as increases in ABA and sugar accumulation begin earlier.