Background: Phalaenopsis represents an important cash crop worldwide. Abundant flower colors observed in Phalaenopsis orchids range from red-purple, purple, purple-violet, violet, and violet-blue. However, violet-blue orchids are less bred than are those of other colors. Anthocyanin, vacuolar pH and metal ions are three major factors influencing flower color. This study aimed to identify the factors causing the violet-blue color in Phalaenopsis flowers and to analyze whether delphinidin accumulation and blue pigmentation formation can be achieved by transient overexpression of heterologous F3'5'H in Phalaenopsis. Results: Cyanidin-based anthocyanin was highly accumulated in Phalaenopsis flowers with red-purple, purple, purple-violet, and violet to violet-blue color, but no true-blue color and no delphinidin was detected. Concomitantly, the expression of PeF3'H (Phalaenopsis equestrsis) was high, but that of PhF3'5'H (Phalaenopsis hybrid) was low or absent in various-colored Phalaenopsis flowers. Transient overexpression of DgF3'5'H (Delphinium grandiflorum) and PeMYB2 in a white Phalaenopsis cultivar resulted a 53.6% delphinidin accumulation and a novel blue color formation. In contrast, transient overexpression of both PhF3'5'H and PeMYB2 did not lead to delphinidin accumulation. Sequence analysis showed that the substrate recognition site 6 (SRS6) of PhF3'5'H was consistently different from DgF3'5'Hs at positions 5, 8 and 10. Prediction of molecular docking of the substrates showed a contrary binding direction of aromatic rings (B-ring) with the SRS6 domain of DgF3'5'H and PhF3'5'H. In addition, the pH values of violet-blue and purple Phalaenopsis flowers ranged from 5.33 to 5.54 and 4.77 to 5.04, respectively. Furthermore, the molar ratio of metal ions (including Al3+, Ca2+ and Fe3+) to anthocyanin in violet-blue color Phalaenopsis was 190-, 49-, and 51-fold higher, respectively, than those in purple-color Phalaenopsis. Conclusion: Cyanidin-based anthocyanin was detected in violet-blue color Phalaenopsis and was concomitant with a high pH value and high molar ratio of Al3+, Ca2+ and Fe3+ to anthocyanin content. Enhanced expression of delphinidin is needed to produce true-blue Phalaenopsis.
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