Physiol Plant. 2021 Mar 23. doi: 10.1111/ppl.13402. Online ahead of print.
Drought stress hinders the growth and development of crop plants and ultimately, its productivity. It is expected that drought stress will be frequent and intense in the future due to drastic changes in the global climate. It is necessary to make crop plants more resilient to drought stress through various techniques; drought-hardening is one of them. Defining various metabolic strategies used by tobacco plants to confer drought tolerance will be important for maintaining plant physiological functions, but studies addressing this topic are limited. This study was designed to elucidate the drought tolerance and adaptation strategies used by tobacco via the application of different circular drought-hardening cycles (control: no drought-hardening, T1: one cycle of drought hardening, T2: two cycles of drought-hardening, and T3: three cycles of drought-hardening) to two tobacco varieties namely Honghuadajinyuan (H) and Yun Yan-100 (Y). The results revealed that drought-hardening decreased the fresh and dry biomass of the plant. The decrease was more pronounced in the T3 treatment for both H (23 and 29%, respectively) and Y (26 and 31%, respectively) under drought stress. The MDA contents, especially in T1 and T2 in both varieties, were statistically similar compared with control under drought stress. Similarly, higher POD, APX, and GR activities were observed, especially in T3, and elevated amounts of AsA and GSH were also observed among the different circular drought-hardening treatments under drought stress. Thus drought-hardening mitigated the oxidative damage by increasing the antioxidant enzyme activities and elevated the content of antioxidant substances, a key metabolic strategy under drought stress. Similarly, another important plant metabolic strategy is the osmotic adjustment. Different drought-hardening treatments improved the accumulation of proline and soluble sugars contents which contributed to osmoregulation. Finally, at the molecular level circular drought-hardening improved the transcript levels of antioxidant enzyme-related genes (CAT, APX1, and GR2), proline and polyamines biosynthesis-related genes (P5CS1 and ADC2), and ABA signalling (SnRK2), and transcription factors (AREB1 and WRKY6) in response to drought stress. As a result, circular drought-hardening (T2 and T3 treatments) promoted tolerance to water stress via affecting the anti-oxidative capacity, osmotic adjustment, and regulation of gene expression in tobacco.