Biostimulants are emerging as a feasible tool for counteracting reduction in climate change-related yield and quality under water scarcity. As they are gaining attention, the necessity for accurately assessing phenotypic variables in their evaluation is emerging as a critical issue. In light of this, high-throughput phenotyping techniques have been more widely adopted. The main bottleneck of these techniques is represented by data management, which needs to be tailored to the complex, often multifactorial, data. This calls for the adoption of non-linear regression models capable of capturing dynamic data and also the interaction and effects between multiple factors. In this framework, a commercial glycinebetaine- (GB-) based biostimulant (Vegetal B60, ED&F Man) was tested and distributed at a rate of 6 kg/ha. Exogenous application of GB, a widely accumulated and documented stress adaptor molecule in plants, has been demonstrated to enhance the plant abiotic stress tolerance, including drought. Trials were conducted on tomato plants during the flowering stage in a greenhouse. The experiment was designed as a factorial combination of irrigation (water-stressed and well-watered) and biostimulant treatment (treated and control) and adopted a mixed phenotyping-omics approach. The efficacy of a continuous whole-canopy multichamber system coupled with generalized additive mixed modeling (GAMM) was evaluated to discriminate between water-stressed plants under the biostimulant treatment. Photosynthetic performance was evaluated by using GAMM, and was then correlated to metabolic profile. The results confirmed a higher photosynthetic efficiency of the treated plants, which is correlated to biostimulant-mediated drought tolerance. Furthermore, metabolomic analyses demonstrated the priming effect of the biostimulant for stress tolerance and detoxification and stabilization of photosynthetic machinery. In support of this, the overaccumulation of carotenoids was particularly relevant, given their photoprotective role in preventing the overexcitation of photosystem II. Metabolic profile and photosynthetic performance findings suggest an increased effective use of water (EUW) through the overaccumulation of lipids and leaf thickening. The positive effect of GB on water stress resistance could be attributed to both the delayed onset of stress and the elicitation of stress priming through the induction of H2O2-mediated antioxidant mechanisms. Overall, the mixed approach supported by a GAMM analysis could prove a valuable contribution to high-throughput biostimulant testing.
Keywords: GAMM; biostimulant; climate change; gas exchange; glycinebetaine; metabolomics; tomato; water stress.
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