Watermelon seeds are a powerhouse of value-added traits such as proteins, free amino acids, vitamins, and essential minerals, offering a paleo-friendly dietary option. Despite the availability of substantial genetic variation, there is no sufficient information on the natural variation in seed-bound amino acids or proteins across the watermelon germplasm. This study aimed to analyze the natural variation in watermelon seed amino acids and total protein and explore underpinning genetic loci by genome-wide association study (GWAS).
The study evaluated the distribution of seed-bound free amino acids and total protein in 211 watermelon accessions of
Citrullusspp, including 154 of Citrullus lanatus, 54 of Citrullus mucosospermus(egusi) and three of Citrullus amarus. We used the GWAS approach to associate seed phenotypes with 11,456 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) generated by genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS). Results
Our results demonstrate a significant natural variation in different free amino acids and total protein content across accessions and geographic regions. The accessions with high protein content and proportion of essential amino acids warrant its use for value-added benefits in the food and feed industries
viabiofortification. The GWAS analysis identified 188 SNPs coinciding with 167 candidate genes associated with watermelon seed-bound amino acids and total protein. Clustering of SNPs associated with individual amino acids found by principal component analysis was independent of the speciation or cultivar groups and was not selected during the domestication of sweet watermelon. The identified candidate genes were involved in metabolic pathways associated with amino acid metabolism, such as Argininosuccinate synthase, explaining 7% of the variation in arginine content, which validate their functional relevance and potential for marker-assisted analysis selection. This study provides a platform for exploring potential gene loci involved in seed-bound amino acids metabolism, useful in genetic analysis and development of watermelon varieties with superior seed nutritional values.