Aims In this study, changes in growth, photosynthesis and root structure in response to drought were tested in transgenic poplar 84K (Populus alba × P. glandulosa) seedlings with different expression levels of aquaporin gene (PtPIP2;8). The function of aquaporin gene PtPIP2;8 and its response to drought stress were analyzed.
Methods We selected PtPIP2;8 silencing line of poplar 84K, PtPIP2;8 overexpressing line of poplar 84K and wildtype (WT) as the experimental materials. The Real-time fluorescence quantitative PCR technique was used to detect the PtPIP2;8 expression in roots, stems and leaves. Root hydraulic conductance was measured by high pressure liquid flow meter. The photosynthetic light-response curve, and gas exchange parameters were measured by a LI-6400 photosynthetic system. Growth indexes were determined, and the root length, root surface area, root volume and total root tips were scanned and then analyzed with the root analysis software.
Important findings The results showed that: (1) The gene PtPIP2;8 was mainly expressed in the root system in WT, while its significant expression occurs not only in roots, but also in stems and leaves in PtPIP2;8 overexpressing poplar lines. The PtPIP2;8 RNAi-silence poplar lines only showed weak expression of PtPIP2;8 in the root, and the expression level were 1/20 and 1/80 of WT and overexpression line, respectively. (2) The root structure analysis showed that overexpression lines had significantly lower total root length, total root surface area, total root volume and total root tips than RNAi-silence line and WT, but higher root hydraulic conductance compared with RNAi-silence line and WT. These results showed that the aquaporin gene PtPIP2;8 participated in plant water transport and improved water transport efficiency. (3) Under normal water conditions, RNAi-silence lines showed lower plant height and leaf area but higher root-shoot ratio compared with overexpression line and WT. After drought stress, RNAi-silence lines only slightly decreased the net photosynthetic rate (Pn) and stomatal conductance (Gs), and maintained a relatively high Pn. Diurnal changes of Pn and Gs in RNAi-silence lines showed a single-peak pattern, in which the decrease of photosynthesis was caused by stomatal limitation. Diurnal changes of Pn in both overexpression lines and WT had a two-peak pattern, indicating the non-stomatal limitation of photosynthesis. Drought stress slightly decreased Pn of RNAi-silence lines, while largely decreased Pn of overexpression line and WT decreased, especially at 13:00 and 15:00, indicating that overexpression line and WT were more sensitive to drought stress compared with the RNAi-silence lines. (4) Under drought stress, RNAi-silence line showed the least decline in relative growth rate and total biomass, and the highest root-shoot ratio among the three poplar lines. The total root surface area, total root volume and total root tips of RNAi-silence line were significantly higher than those of WT. The results suggest that aquaporin gene PtPIP2;8 directly participates in the water transport and helps to improve the water transport efficiency, thus the transformation of aquaporin PtPIP2;8 gene may affect root development and growth of plants. Overexpression lines weaken their drought resistance with decreased root development and increased leaf area, while RNAi-silence line increases its drought resistance with reduced leaf area, increased root growth and root-shoot ratio. The results of this study indicate that aquaporin improves the efficiency of water transport across membranes, while the non-aquaporin water-conducting mechanism has greater tolerance to drought.