Salinity provokes an imbalance of vegetative to generative growth, thus impairing crop productivity. Unlike breeding strategies, grafting is a direct and quick alternative to improve salinity tolerance in horticultural crops, through rebalancing plant development. Providing that hormones play a key role in plant growth and development and stress responses, we hypothesized that rootstock-mediated reallocation of vegetative growth and yield under salinity was associated with changes in the hormonal balance. To test this hypothesis, the hybrid pepper variety (Capsicum annuum L. "Gacela F1") was either non-grafted or grafted onto three commercial rootstocks (Creonte, Atlante, and Terrano) and plants were grown in a greenhouse under control (0 mM NaCl) and moderate salinity (35 mM NaCl) conditions. Differential vegetative growth versus fruit yield responses were induced by rootstock and salinity. Atlante strongly increased shoot and root fresh weight with respect to the non-grafted Gacela plants associated with improved photosynthetic rate and K+ homeostasis under salinity. The invigorating effect of Atlante can be explained by an efficient balance between cytokinins (CKs) and abscisic acid (ABA). Creonte improved fruit yield and maintained the reproductive to vegetative ratio under salinity as a consequence of its capacity to induce biomass reallocation and to avoid Na+ accumulation in the shoot. The physiological responses associated with yield stability in Creonte were mediated by the inverse regulation of CKs and the ethylene precursor 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid. Finally, Terrano limited the accumulation of gibberellins in the shoot thus reducing plant height. Despite scion compactness induced by Terrano, both vegetative and reproductive biomass were maintained under salinity through ABA-mediated control of water relations and K+ homeostasis. Our data demonstrate that the contrasting developmental and physiological responses induced by the rootstock genotype in salinized pepper plants were critically mediated by hormones. This will be particularly important for rootstock breeding programs to improve salinity tolerance by focusing on hormonal traits.
Keywords: hormonal balance; ion homeostasis; pepper; reproductive growth; rootstock; salinity; vegetative growth.