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Understanding plant responses to drought — from genes to the whole plant

Chaves, Manuela M., Maroco, Joao P., Pereira, Joao S.
Functional plant biology 2003 v.30 no.3 pp. 239-264
acclimation, breeding methods, crop management, drought, drought tolerance, ecosystems, fluorescence, gene expression, genes, hydraulic conductivity, image analysis, leaves, oxidative stress, photostability, plant adaptation, plant development, plant response, proteomics, stable isotopes, stress tolerance, transgenic plants
In the last decade, our understanding of the processes underlying plant response to drought, at the molecular and whole-plant levels, has rapidly progressed. Here, we review that progress. We draw attention to the perception and signalling processes (chemical and hydraulic) of water deficits. Knowledge of these processes is essential for a holistic understanding of plant resistance to stress, which is needed to improve crop management and breeding techniques. Hundreds of genes that are induced under drought have been identified. A range of tools, from gene expression patterns to the use of transgenic plants, is being used to study the specific function of these genes and their role in plant acclimation or adaptation to water deficit. However, because plant responses to stress are complex, the functions of many of the genes are still unknown. Many of the traits that explain plant adaptation to drought — such as phenology, root size and depth, hydraulic conductivity and the storage of reserves — are those associated with plant development and structure, and are constitutive rather than stress induced. But a large part of plant resistance to drought is the ability to get rid of excess radiation, a concomitant stress under natural conditions. The nature of the mechanisms responsible for leaf photoprotection, especially those related to thermal dissipation, and oxidative stress are being actively researched. The new tools that operate at molecular, plant and ecosystem levels are revolutionising our understanding of plant response to drought, and our ability to monitor it. Techniques such as genome-wide tools, proteomics, stable isotopes and thermal or fluorescence imaging may allow the genotype–phenotype gap to be bridged, which is essential for faster progress in stress biology research.