Natural alleles of the abscisic acid catabolism gene ZmAbh4 modulate water use efficiency and carbon isotope discrimination in maize

Plant Cell. 2022 Sep 27;34(10):3860-3872. doi: 10.1093/plcell/koac200.


Altering plant water use efficiency (WUE) is a promising approach for achieving sustainable crop production in changing climate scenarios. Here, we show that WUE can be tuned by alleles of a single gene discovered in elite maize (Zea mays) breeding material. Genetic dissection of a genomic region affecting WUE led to the identification of the gene ZmAbh4 as causative for the effect. CRISPR/Cas9-mediated ZmAbh4 inactivation increased WUE without growth reductions in well-watered conditions. ZmAbh4 encodes an enzyme that hydroxylates the phytohormone abscisic acid (ABA) and initiates its catabolism. Stomatal conductance is regulated by ABA and emerged as a major link between variation in WUE and discrimination against the heavy carbon isotope (Δ13C) during photosynthesis in the C4 crop maize. Changes in Δ13C persisted in kernel material, which offers an easy-to-screen proxy for WUE. Our results establish a direct physiological and genetic link between WUE and Δ13C through a single gene with potential applications in maize breeding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abscisic Acid* / metabolism
  • Abscisic Acid* / pharmacology
  • Alleles
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Photosynthesis / genetics
  • Plant Growth Regulators / metabolism
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism
  • Water / metabolism
  • Zea mays* / metabolism


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Plant Growth Regulators
  • Water
  • Abscisic Acid