Mechanisms underlying plant resilience to water deficits: Prospects for water-saving agriculture

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Drought is one of the greatest limitations to crop expansion outside the present-day agricultural areas. It will become increasingly important in regions of the globe where, in the past, the problem was negligible, due to the recognized changes in global climate. Today the concern is with improving cultural practices and crop genotypes for drought-prone areas; therefore, understanding the mechanisms behind drought resistance and the efficient use of water by the plants is fundamental for the achievement of those goals. In this paper, the major constraints to carbon assimilation and the metabolic regulations that play a role in plant responses to water deficits, acting in isolation or in conjunction with other stresses, is reviewed. The effects on carbon assimilation include increased resistance to diffusion by stomata and the mesophyll, as well as biochemical and photochemical adjustments. Oxidative stress is critical for crops that experience drought episodes. The role of detoxifying systems in preventing irreversible damage to photosynthetic machinery and of redox molecules as local or systemic signals is revised. Plant capacity to avoid or repair membrane damage during dehydration and rehydration processes is pivotal for the maintenance of membrane integrity, especially for those that embed functional proteins. Among such proteins are water transporters, whose role in the regulation of plant water status and transport of other metabolites is the subject of intense investigation. Long-distance chemical signalling, as an early response to drought, started to be unravelled more than a decade ago. The effects of those signals on carbon assimilation and partitioning of assimilates between reproductive and non-reproductive structures are revised and discussed in the context of novel management techniques. These applications are designed to combine increased crop water-use efficiency with sustained yield and improved quality of the products. Through an understanding of the mechanisms leading to successful adaptation to dehydration and rehydration, it has already been possible to identify key genes able to alter metabolism and increase plant tolerance to drought. An overview of the most important data on this topic, including engineering for osmotic adjustment or protection, water transporters, and C4 traits is presented in this paper. Emphasis is given to the most successful or promising cases of genetic engineering in crops, using functional or regulatory genes, as well as to promising technologies, such as the transfer of transcription factors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2365-2384
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Experimental Botany
Issue number407
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2004


  • Diffusional and metabolic limitations
  • Genetic engineering
  • Photosynthesis
  • Water deficits
  • Water-saving irrigation


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