The seeds developing inside the ovary wall produce hormones. At first they produce cytokinins which are hormones that are exported from the seed and cause cell division in the ovary wall. This, of course, adds some thickness to the wall of the growing fruit. Next, the developing seeds produce gibberellic acid which is exported to the wall of the ovary and causes rapid expansion of each of the cells. The combination of more cells and expanding cells leads to tremendous increase in the size of the ovary. As this is happening, the mother plant is producing another hormone, abscisic acid, which causes the embryo in the developing seeds to become dormant. This is adaptive because it prevents the seed from sprouting inside the warm, moist fruit.
This sequence of events is diagrammed below. Please note: in fruits that lack seeds, we can apply a solution of gibberellic acid and get some full-sized fruits in spite of no seeds to make gibberellic acid. A good example of that is in Thompson seedless grapes...every green seedless grape in the grocery was treated about three times in the growing season with a dilute solution of gibberellic acid to make it grow to normal size. Without these treatments the fruits would be small, spherical, and likely to fall off of the cluster before the fruits could get to market.
Now that the fruit is full size, events cause it to ripen.
In the diagram above on the left is an unripe fruit. It is hard, green, sour, has no smell, is mealy (starch present), and so on. Sometimes we crave such a combination of characteristics...a 'Granny Smith' apple has many of those. Such fruits are similar to celery or other vegetables, and so are not appealing at other times.
My pet peeve is unripe pears. Most cafeterias serve pears to students that are absolutely green, hard, sour, mealy, and lacking aroma. These are better for diving nails than eating...in my opinion. Worse is the fact that many cafeterias will not let you take such a fruit back to your dorm to let it ripen! They actually expect you to eat it like that. (More later!).
The way fruits ripen is that there is commonly a ripening signal...a burst of ethylene production. Ethylene is a simple hydrocarbon gas (H2C=CH2) that ripening fruits make and shed into the atmosphere. Sometimes a wound will cause rapid ethylene production...thus picking a fruit will sometimes signal it to ripen...as will an infection of bacteria or fungi on the fruit. This ethylene signal causes developmental changes that result in fruit ripening.
New enzymes are made. These include hydrolases to help break down chemicals inside the fruits, amylase to accelerate hydrolysis of starch into sugar, pectinase to catalyze digestion of pectin (the glue between cells), and so on. Ethylene apparently "turns on" the genes that are transcribed and translated to make these enzymes. The enzymes then catalyze reactions to alter the characteristics of the fruit.
The action of the enzymes cause the ripening responses. Chlorophyll is broken down and sometimes new pigments are made so that the fruit skin changes color to red, yellow, or blue. Acids are broken down so that the fruit changes from sour to neutral. The digestion of starch by amylase produces sugar. This reduces the mealy quality and increases juiciness (by osmosis, a process we will study later). The breakdown of pectin between the fruit cells unglues them so they can slip past each other. That results in a softer fruit. Finally enzymes break down large organic molecules into smaller ones that can be volatile (evaporate into the air) and we can detect as an aroma.
If you think of this process in pears, the ethylene signal causes the fruit to change from green to yellow, from hard to soft, from mealy to juicy, from tart to sweet, from odorless to fragrant. If you have never experienced a ripe pear, you have really missed a sensory delight! It is marvelous.
How can you assist fruit ripening? First let me tell you that bananas are shipped to the US as hard, green, sour, unripened fruits. They ship better that way. They arrive into a distributor's warehouse. The bananas are put in a room and gassed with ethylene. They all begin to ripen. You buy them at the store and within a few days the ripening process is so rapid that the bananas are "over the hill" before you can eat them all.
By the way, you can allow the bananas to ripen to the stage you like them and then put them in the refrigerator. This slows the process down drastically. For several days after that you can take bananas from the refrigerator and enjoy the fruit inside. Please note: the skin will turn very dark in color after only a short time in the refrigerator...you can ignore that...the fruit inside remains just as it was before you put the banana into the refrigerator.
The ripening bananas produce so much ethylene that you can use them as a tool to ripen other fruits. Take those green pears home and put them on the shelf in a paper bag with a banana. The banana at room temperature produces ethylene that will signal the green pears to start ripening immediately. The paper bag holds the ethylene in stagnant air around the fruits, yet allows oxygen to go into the bag for respiration in the fruits...needed to make the enzymes! In just a few days the pears should be ready to eat! You can do the same with avocados.
Finally this stimulated ripening process helps explain the old phrase, "one bad apple spoils the bunch." In the olden days, apples were packed into barrels for storage in a root cellar. The cool temperature of the cellar helped keep the apples from ripening until the family wanted to eat them during the winter. However in packing the barrel with apples you had to be careful not to put any wormy or fungus-infected apples with the bunch. Why? Because the wounded, infested apple would produce ethylene inside the barrel. If you came back in a month, all the apples in the barrel would be too-ripe (bruised by weight, soft, mushy, etc.) because they responded to that ethylene!
Today we store fruits in cold temperatures and cycle the atmosphere in the warehouse through charcoal filters to adsorb any ethylene being made by any "bad apples" in the building! This way we can enjoy apples year-round.
This page © Ross E. Koning 1994.
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Koning, Ross E. "Fruit Growth and Ripening". Plant Physiology Website. 1994. http://koning.ecsu.ctstateu.edu/plants_human/fruitgrowripe.html (your visit date).
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