The demand for licorice and its natural product derivatives in domestic and foreign market is considerably huge. The core production areas of licorice are covered with salinity and drought land in northwestern China. Studies have shown that suitable environmental stress can promote the accumulation of glycyrrhizin and liquiritin to improve its quality as medicinal materials. However, there are few reports on other bioactive constituents of licorice, not to mention their dynamic accumulation under stressed conditions. To explore the quality formation of licorice from the perspective of salt influence, a reliable method based on ultra-fast liquid chromatography tandem triple quadrupole mass spectrometry (UFLC–MS/MS) was established for simultaneous determination of sixteen bioactive constituents, including triterpenoids, flavonoids, chalcones and their glycosides. Physiological experiments were performed to investigate salt tolerance of licorice under different salinity treatments. The expressions of crucial genes (bAS and CHS), key enzymes of triterpenoid and flavonoid synthesis, were also tested by qRT-PCR. Our study found that 50 mM NaCl treatment (low stress) was the most favorable to promote the accumulation of bioactive constituents in the long term, without harming the plants. Flavonoid accumulation of non-stressed and low-stressed groups became different in the initial synthesis stage, and glycosyltransferases may have great influence on their downstream synthesis. Furthermore, bAS and CHS also showed higher levels in low-stressed licorice at harvest time. This work provides valuable information on dynamic variations in multiple bioactive constituents in licorice treated by salt and insight into its quality formation under stressed conditions.
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