Osmolyte accumulation: can it really help increase crop yield under drought conditions?

Plant Cell Environ. 2002 Feb;25(2):333-341. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-3040.2002.00754.x.


Osmolyte accumulation (OA) is frequently cited as a key putative mechanism for increasing yields of crops subjected to drought conditions. The hypothesis is that OA results in a number of benefits that sustain cell and tissue activity under water-deficit conditions. It has been proposed as an effective tolerance mechanism for water deficits, which could be enhanced in crops by traditional plant breeding, marker-assisted selection or genetic engineering, to generate drought-tolerant crops. However, field studies examining the association between OA and crop yield have tended to show no consistent benefit. The few, often-cited, investigations with positive associations were obtained under severe water deficits with extremely low yields or conditions with special water-supply scenarios when much of the benefit is plant survival. Under conditions where water deficits threaten crop survival, yields are so low that even large fractional yield gains offer little practical benefit to growers. Indeed, the often-cited benefit of turgor maintenance in cells is likely to result in crop behaviour that is exactly opposite to what is beneficial to crops. The one clear mechanism identified in this review for beneficial yield responses to OA is in the maintenance of root development in order to reach water that may be available deeper in the soil profile.