Intraspecific Variation for Leaf Physiological and Root Morphological Adaptation to Drought Stress in Alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.)

Front Plant Sci. 2022 May 3:13:795011. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2022.795011. eCollection 2022.


Drought stress reduces crop biomass yield and the profitability of rainfed agricultural systems. Evaluation of populations or accessions adapted to diverse geographical and agro-climatic environments sheds light on beneficial plant responses to enhance and optimize yield in resource-limited environments. This study used the morphological and physiological characteristics of leaves and roots from two different alfalfa subspecies during progressive drought stress imposed on controlled and field conditions. Two different soils (Experiments 1 and 2) imposed water stress at different stress intensities and crop stages in the controlled environment. Algorithm-based image analysis of leaves and root systems revealed key morphological and physiological traits associated with biomass yield under stress. The Medicago sativa subspecies (ssp.) sativa population, PI478573, had smaller leaves and maintained higher chlorophyll content (CC), leaf water potential, and osmotic potential under water stress. In contrast, M. sativa ssp. varia, PI502521, had larger leaves, a robust root system, and more biomass yield. In the field study, an unmanned aerial vehicle survey revealed PI502521 to have a higher normalized difference vegetation index (vegetation cover and plant health characteristics) throughout the cropping season, whereas PI478573 values were low during the hot summer and yielded low biomass in both irrigated and rainfed treatments. RhizoVision Explorer image analysis of excavated roots revealed a smaller diameter and a narrow root angle as target traits to increase alfalfa biomass yield irrespective of water availability. Root architectural traits such as network area, solidity, volume, surface area, and maximum radius exhibited significant variation at the genotype level only under limited water availability. Different drought-adaptive strategies identified across subspecies populations will benefit the plant under varying levels of water limitation and facilitate the development of alfalfa cultivars suitable across a broad range of growing conditions. The alleles from both subspecies will enable the development of drought-tolerant alfalfa with enhanced productivity under limited water availability.

Keywords: alfalfa; algorithms; drought stress; normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI); root responses.