Apples (Malus domestica Borkh) are prone to preharvest fruit drop, which is more pronounced in 'Honeycrisp'. Hexanal is known to improve fruit retention in several economically important crops. The effects of hexanal on the fruit retention of 'Honeycrisp' apples were assessed using physiological, biochemical, and transcriptomic approaches. Fruit retention and fruit firmness were significantly improved by hexanal, while sugars and fresh weight did not show a significant change in response to hexanal treatment. At commercial maturity, abscisic acid and melatonin levels were significantly lower in the treated fruit abscission zone (FAZ) compared to control. At this stage, a total of 726 differentially expressed genes (DEGs) were identified between treated and control FAZ. Functional classification of the DEGs showed that hexanal downregulated ethylene biosynthesis genes, such as S-adenosylmethionine synthase (SAM2) and 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid oxidases (ACO3, ACO4, and ACO4-like), while it upregulated the receptor genes ETR2 and ERS1. Genes related to ABA biosynthesis (FDPS and CLE25) were also downregulated. On the contrary, key genes involved in gibberellic acid biosynthesis (GA20OX-like and KO) were upregulated. Further, hexanal downregulated the expression of genes related to cell wall degrading enzymes, such as polygalacturonase (PG1), glucanases (endo-β-1,4-glucanase), and expansins (EXPA1-like, EXPA6, EXPA8, EXPA10-like, EXPA16-like). Our findings reveal that hexanal reduced the sensitivity of FAZ cells to ethylene and ABA. Simultaneously, hexanal maintained the cell wall integrity of FAZ cells by regulating genes involved in cell wall modifications. Thus, delayed fruit abscission by hexanal is most likely achieved by minimizing ABA through an ethylene-dependent mechanism.
Keywords: abscisic acid; cell-wall hydrolases; ethylene; fruit abscission zone; hexanal; transcriptome.