Sequentially Reducing Sulfate Fertility During Onion Growth and Development Affects Bulb Flavor at Harvest

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A major decision in producing onions with mild flavor on low sulfur soils is determining when to stop applying SO4-2 to the crop. Sulfate (SO4-2) is necessary for good early growth, but high levels of available SO4-2 late in the season increase bulb pungency. The objective of this research was to determine how sequentially reducing the availability of SO4-2 during onion growth and development would affect flavor intensity and quality of Granex-type onions. Starting 77 days before harvest, SO4-2 concentrations were lowered from 1 mM to 0.05 mM on different blocks of onions in a greenhouse experiment at bi-weekly intervals. Total leaf and bulb S were measured at harvest to monitor S accumulation as SO4-2 fertility was sequentially reduced. Bulbs were harvested and analyzed for flavor precursors and their biosynthetic intermediates, gross flavor intensity as measured by enzymatically developed pyruvic acid (EPY), and soluble solids content. As SO4-2 fertility reductions were delayed during the experiment, total leaf and bulb S increased linearly. In addition, bulb EPY concentrations increased linearly as SO4-2 reduction was delayed, indicating increases in overall flavor intensity. While the total concentration of flavor precursors did not significantly change in response to lowering SO4-2 fertility during the experiment, the concentrations of MCSO to 1-PRENCSO did. MCSO concentration decreased and then increased in a quadratic manner. MCSO produces fresh onion and cabbage like flavors. 1-PRENCSO, on the other hand, increased linearly as the high SO4-2 fertility level was extended through bulb maturation. Increasing concentrations of 1-PRENCSO causes onions to have significantly more heat and mouth burn when eaten. Reducing available SO4-2 49 days prior to harvest coincided with a reduction in EPY and a change in the flavor biosynthetic pathway that appeared to be associated with the metabolic changes occurring with the onset of bulbing. Chemical names used: enzymatically developed pyruvic acid (EPY); methyl cysteine sulfoxide (MCSO); 1-propenyl cysteine sulfoxide (1-PRENCSO).

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