Smallanthus sonchifolius, also known as yacón, is an Andean crop species commercialized for its nutraceutical and medicinal properties. The tuberous roots of yacón accumulate a diverse array of probiotic and bioactive metabolites including fructooligosaccharides and caffeic acid esters. However, the metabolic diversity of yacón remains unexplored, including the site of biosynthesis and accumulation of key metabolite classes. We report herein a multidisciplinary approach involving metabolomics, gene expression and scanning electron microscopy, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the diversity, distribution and spatial regulation of the specialized metabolism in yacón. Our results demonstrate that different metabolic fingerprints and gene expression patterns characterize specific tissues, organs and cultivars of yacón. Manual inspection of mass spectrometry data and molecular networking allowed the tentative identification of 71 metabolites, including undescribed structural analogues of known bioactive compounds. Imaging by scanning electron microscopy revealed the presence of a new type of glandular trichome in yacón bracts, with a distinctive metabolite profile. Furthermore, the high concentration of sesquiterpene lactones in capitate glandular trichomes and the restricted presence of certain flavonoids and caffeic acid esters in underground organs and internal tissues suggests that these metabolites could be involved in protective and ecological functions. This study demonstrates that individual organs and tissues make specific contributions to the highly diverse and specialized metabolome of yacón, which is proving to be a reservoir of previously undescribed molecules of potential significance in human health.
Keywords: Asteraceae; LC-MS/MS; Smallanthus sonchifolius; chalcone synthase; gene expression; germacrene A oxidase; metabolomics.