The phytohormone salicylic acid (SA) is a secondary metabolite that regulates plant growth, development and responses to stress. However, the role of SA in the biosynthesis of flavonoids (a large class of secondary metabolites) in tea (Camellia sinensis
L.) remains largely unknown. Here, we show that exogenous methyl salicylate (MeSA, the methyl ester of SA) increased flavonoid concentration in tea leaves in a dose-dependent manner. While a moderate concentration of MeSA (1 mM) resulted in the highest increase in flavonoid concentration, a high concentration of MeSA (5 mM) decreased flavonoid concentration in tea leaves. A time-course of flavonoid concentration following 1 mM MeSA application showed that flavonoid concentration peaked at 2 days after treatment and then gradually declined, reaching a concentration lower than that of control after 6 days. Consistent with the time course of flavonoid concentration, MeSA enhanced the activity of phenylalanine ammonia-lyase (PAL, a key enzyme for the biosynthesis of flavonoids) as early as 12 h after the treatment, which peaked after 1 day and then gradually declined upto 6 days. qRT-PCR analysis of the genes involved in flavonoid biosynthesis revealed that exogenous MeSA upregulated the expression of genes such as CsPAL
in tea leaves. These results suggest a role for MeSA in modulating the flavonoid biosynthesis in green tea leaves, which might have potential implications in manipulating the tea quality and stress tolerance in tea plants.
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