Researchers have uncovered the key compounds responsible for the distinctive flavor of oranges in a groundbreaking international study published in Science Advances. Through an extensive analysis of over 179 juice samples from various oranges, tangerines, and hybrids, led by Zhen Fan from the University of Florida, they identified 26 primary compounds that give oranges their characteristic taste. Among these are seven esters, organic compounds commonly found in nature with pleasant aromas, many of which contribute to the unique flavors found in fruits and flowers, setting oranges apart from tangerines.

Genetic investigations revealed a previously undiscovered alcohol acyltransferase gene as the culprit behind the production of these esters, hinting at its potential as a DNA marker for predicting flavor properties in disease-resistant hybrids akin to oranges.

The sweet orange, a hybrid of grapefruit and tangerine (Citrus sinensis), stands as one of the most economically significant citrus crops in the United States. Yet, its susceptibility to citrus greening disease, known as Huanglongbing, has inflicted substantial economic losses, particularly in Florida.

Given the limited genetic diversity of sweet oranges, researchers have long sought ways to breed disease-resistant hybrids resembling sweet oranges. However, pinpointing the specific compounds responsible for the delightful taste of sweet oranges has proven elusive.

In their quest for answers, the team evaluated taste profiles and chemical compositions of juices from a wide array of oranges, tangerines, and hybrids cultivated in Florida, including the well-known sweet oranges and a promising newcomer named US SunDragon. Trained citrus tasters were enlisted to gauge the orange flavor intensity from numerous juice samples collected between 2016 and 2021.

Using a sophisticated random forest machine learning model, the researchers successfully identified 26 chemical compounds crucial for predicting orange flavor. These included odor-active compounds and esters produced by alcohol acyltransferase 1 of C. sinensis, a gene type previously documented in other fruits.

“This groundbreaking discovery will greatly expedite the selection process for orange-like hybrids,” declared the authors. “Seedlings can now be identified at an early stage, long before fruit production, streamlining the recovery of orange aroma with fewer generations of crosses,” they concluded.

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