Published in Journal of Experimental Botany 1-19, 2011
Marta S. Lopes, Jose Luis Araus, Philippus D. R. van Heerden and Christine H. Foyer
Adaptation to abiotic stresses is a quantitative trait controlled by many different genes. Enhancing the tolerance of crop plants to abiotic stresses such as drought has therefore proved to be somewhat elusive in terms of plant breeding. While many C4 species have significant agronomic importance, most of the research effort on improving drought tolerance has focused on maize. Ideally, drought tolerance has to be achieved without penalties in yield potential. Possibilities for success in this regard are highlighted by studies on maize hybrids performed over the last 70 years that have demonstrated that yield potential and enhanced stress tolerance are associated traits. However, while our understanding of the molecular mechanisms that enable plants to tolerate drought has increased considerably in recent years, there have been relatively few applications of DNA marker technologies in practical C4 breeding programmes for improved stress tolerance. Moreover, until recently, targeted approaches to drought tolerance have concentrated largely on shoot parameters, particularly those associated with photosynthesis and stay green phenotypes, rather than on root traits such as soil moisture capture for transpiration, root architecture, and improvement of effective use of water. These root traits are now increasingly considered as important targets for yield improvement in C4 plants under drought stress. Similarly, the molecular mechanisms underpinning heterosis have considerable potential for exploitation in enhancing drought stress tolerance. While current evidence points to the crucial importance of root traits in drought tolerance in C4 plants, shoot traits may also be important in maintaining high yields during drought.
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