The effect of salt stress on the production of apocarotenoids and the expression of genes related to their biosynthesis in saffron

Mol Biol Rep. 2021 Feb;48(2):1707-1715. doi: 10.1007/s11033-021-06219-x. Epub 2021 Feb 21.


Saffron stigmas are widely used as food additives and as traditional medicine in Iran and many other countries. The unique taste, flavor and pharmaceutical properties of saffron stigmas are due to the presence of three apocarotenoids secondary metabolites crocin, picrocrocin and safranal. There is limited knowledge about the effect of environmental stresses on the metabolism of apocarotenoids in saffron. We analyzed the content of crocin and picrocrocin and the expression of key genes of apocarotenoid biosynthesis pathways (CsCCD2, CsCCD4, CsUGT2, CsCHY-β and CsLCYB) in saffron plants exposed to moderate (90 mM) and high (150 mM) salt (NaCl) concentrations. Measuring ion concentrations in leaves showed an increased accumulation of Na+ and decreased uptake of K+ in salt treated compared to control plants indicating an effective salt stress. HPLC analysis of apocarotenoids revealed that crocin production was significantly halted (P < 0.05) with increasing salt concentration while picrocrocin level did not change with moderate salt but significantly dropped by high salt concentration. Real-time PCR analysis revealed a progressive decrease in transcript levels of CsUGT2 and CsLCYB genes with increasing salt concentration (P < 0.05). The expression of CsCCD2 and CsCHY-β tolerated moderate salt concentration but significantly downregulated with high salt concentration. CsCCD4 however responded differently to salt concentration being decreased with moderate salt but increased at higher salt concentration. Our result suggested that salt stress had an adverse effect on the production of saffron apocarotenoids and it is likely influencing the quality of saffron stigma produced.

Keywords: Apocarotenoids; Carotenoids; Crocus sativus; Gene expression; Saffron stigma; Salinity stress.

MeSH terms

  • Biosynthetic Pathways / drug effects
  • Biosynthetic Pathways / genetics
  • Carotenoids / metabolism*
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Crocus / chemistry*
  • Crocus / drug effects
  • Crocus / genetics
  • Crocus / metabolism*
  • Cyclohexenes / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Plant / genetics
  • Glucosides / metabolism
  • Plant Leaves / chemistry
  • Plant Leaves / drug effects
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism
  • Potassium / metabolism
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Salt Stress / genetics*
  • Sodium / metabolism
  • Sodium Chloride / toxicity
  • Terpenes / metabolism*


  • Cyclohexenes
  • Glucosides
  • Terpenes
  • Carotenoids
  • safranal
  • Sodium Chloride
  • crocin
  • Sodium
  • picrocrocin
  • Potassium