Plant Stress Physiology


Over the last few years there has been an explosion of information on responses to abiotic stresses in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana as well as crops such as rice. Much of the research has focussed on changes in gene transcription following stress imposition. The approach identifies potential ‘stress tolerance genes’ followed by assessment of their effects in mutants and genetically modified plants. Although this approach has produced plants that are apparently more stress resistant, evidence for translation to improved performance in the field has been very limited. Possible reasons include the use of unrealistic laboratory stress treatments and the use of plants that are not fully acclimatised to the variable and interacting environmental factors encountered in the field. Stress research is beginning to address this issue and more recent approaches are highlighting the importance of putting stress responses in the context of the control of plant growth by hormones, the initial perception of stress signals and in the context of understanding the physiological and metabolic adjustments that are needed for stress tolerance.

Key Concepts:

  • Transcriptome studies are revealing the details of signalling and transcriptional networks that are involved in plant responses to a wide range of environmental stresses. Epigenetic control over gene expression is also important in stress responses.

  • Stress resistance mechanisms are sometimes incompatible with growth and laboratory studies of stress often focus on extreme or rapidly developing stress. Since these conditions are not generally relevant to agriculture, the translatability of this research to crop improvement is limited.

  • New approaches in which the signalling mechanisms that restrain growth during mild stress (e.g. low temperature or water stress) are circumvented may be promising avenues for crop improvement.

  • The plant microbiome consists of bacteria and fungi associated with the rhizosphere and living within tissues (endophytes). The microbiome influences stress resistance. Manipulating its composition has promise in improving stress resistance.

Keywords: antioxidants; abscisic acid; water stress; cold stress; oxidative stress; microbiome; hypoxia; salinity; nutrient deficiency; epigenetic

Figure 1.

Publications related to plant stress responses. (a) Number of publication for Arabidopsis thaliana and selected crop plants in the period 2010–2013. (b) Number and proportion (% of all Arabidopsis publications) of stress‐related Arabidopsis thaliana publications between 1994 and 2013. Data were extracted from the Web of Science database.

Figure 2.

The key features involved in drought responses and tolerance of plants illustrated with a cereal plant during the phase of grain filling. To improve drought tolerance, changes in multiple traits are likely to be required and different traits may be important for dealing with drought during seedling, vegetative and reproductive stages. ABA, absciscic acid; ROS, reactive oxygen species.

Figure 3.

Comparison of the 100 genes most strongly induced by hydrogen peroxide in Arabidopsis thaliana with the response of the same genes to various abiotic stresses. Increased hydrogen peroxide was generated by using a catalase (cat2) mutant. The data are presented as a heatmap showing the extent of increased or decreased expression relative to controls. Genes are listed on the horizontal axis and stress conditions on the vertical axis. Hierarchical clustering analysis groups the genes and conditions that are most similar. Oxidative stresses cluster strongly together (orange box). The other stresses (see text for details) form a separate cluster that shows a tendency for a selection of hydrogen peroxide‐responsive genes to have higher expression. The analysis was carried out with the Genevestigator tool (Zimmermann et al., ).



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Further Reading

Battaglia M, Olvera‐Carrillo Y, Garciarrubio A, Campos F and Covarrubias AA (2008) The enigmatic LEA proteins and other hydrophilins. Plant Physiology 148: 6–24.

Crawford RMM (2008) Plants at the Margin. Ecological Limits and Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lawlor DW (2013) Genetic engineering to improve plant performance under drought: physiological evaluation of achievements, limitations, and possibilities. Journal of Experimental Botany 64: 83–108.

Miller G, Suzuki N, Ciftci‐Yilmaz S and Mittler R (2010) Reactive oxygen species homeostasis and signalling during drought and salinity stresses. Plant Cell and Environment 33: 453–467.

Peleg Z and Blumwald E (2011) Hormone balance and abiotic stress tolerance in crop plants. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 14: 290–295.

Roy S, Tucker M and Tester M (2011) Genetic analysis of stress tolerance in crops. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 14: 232–239.

Tardieu F and Tuberosa R (2010) Dissection and modelling of abiotic stress tolerance in plants. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 13: 206–212.

Yang J, Kloepper JW and Ryu CM (2009) Rhizosphere bacteria help plants tolerate abiotic stress. Trends in Plant Science 14: 1–4.

de Zelicourt A, Al‐Yousif M and Hirt H (2013) Rhizosphere microbes as essential partners for plant stress tolerance. Molecular Plant 6: 242–245.

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Smirnoff, Nicholas(Oct 2014) Plant Stress Physiology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001297.pub2]