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Plant Physiology

Ördög Vince, Molnár Zoltán (2011)

Debreceni Egyetem, Nyugat-Magyarországi Egyetem, Pannon Egyetem

Plant stress physiology

Plant stress physiology

The basic concepts of plant stress, acclimation, and adaptation

Energy is an absolute requirement for the maintenance of structural organization over the lifetime of the organism. The maintenance of such complex order over time requires a constant through put of energy. The results in a constant flow of energy through all biological organisms, which provides the dynamic driving force for the performance of important maintenance processes such as cellular biosyntheses and transport to maintain its characteristic structure and organization as well as the capacity to replicate and grow. The maintenance of a steady-state results in a meta-stable condition called homeostasis.

Environmental modulation of homeostasis defined as biological stress

Any change in the surrounding environment may disrupt homeostasis. Environmental modulation of homeostasis may be defined as biological stress. Thus, it follows that plant stress implies some adverse effect on the physiology of a plant induced upon a sudden transition from some optimal environmental condition where homeostasis is maintained to some suboptimal condition which disrupts this initial homeostatic state. Thus, plant stress is a relative term since the experimental design to assess the impact of a stress always involves the measurement of a physiological phenomenon in a plant species under a suboptimal, stress condition compared to the measurement of the same physiological phenomenon in the same plant species under optimal conditions.

Plants respond to stress in several different ways

Plant stress can be divided into two primary categories. Abiotic stress is a physical (e.g., light, temperature) or chemical insult that the environment may impose on a plant. Biotic stress is a biological insult, (e.g., insects, disease) to which a plant may be exposed during its lifetime (Figure 3.30). Some plants may be injured by a stress, which means that they exhibit one or more metabolic dysfunctions. If the stress is moderate and short term, the injury may be temporary and the plant may recover when the stress is removed. If the stress is severe enough, it may prevent flowering, seed formation, and induce senescence that leads to plant death. Such plants are considered to be susceptible. Some plants escape the stress altogether, such as ephemeral, or short-lived, desert plants.

Figure 3.30 The effect of environmental stress on plant survival (source: Hopkins W.G., Hüner N.P.A., 2009)

Ephemeral plants germinate, grow, and flower very quickly following seasonal rains. They thus complete their life cycle during a period of adequate moisture and form dormant seeds before the onset of the dry season. In a similar manner, many arctic annuals rapidly complete their life cycle during the short arctic summer and survive over winter in the form of seeds. Because ephemeral plants never really experience the stress of drought or low temperature, these plants survive the environmental stress by stress avoidance (Figure 3.30). Avoidance mechanisms reduce the impact of a stress, even though the stress is present in the environment. Many plants have the capacity to tolerate a particular stress and hence are considered to be stress resistant (Figure 3.30). Stress resistance requires that the organism exhibit the capacity to adjust or to acclimate to the stress.

Stress resistance requires that the organism exhibit the capacity to adjust or to acclimate to the stress

A plant stress usually reflects some sudden change in environmental condition. However, in stress-tolerant plant species, exposure to a particular stress leads to acclimation to that specific stress in a time-dependent manner (Figure 3.31). Thus, plant stress and plant acclimation are intimately linked with each other. The stress-induced modulation of homeostasis can be considered as the signal for the plant to initiate processes required for the establishment of a new homeostasis associated with the acclimated state. Plants exhibit stress resistance or stress tolerance because of their genetic capacity to adjust or to acclimate to the stress and establish a new homeostatic state over time. Furthermore, the acclimation process in stress-resistant species is usually reversible upon removal of the external stress (Figure 3.31).

The establishment of homeostasis associated with the new acclimated state is not the result of a single physiological process but rather the result of many physiological processes that the plant integrates over time, that is, integrates over the acclimation period. Plants usually integrate these physiological processes over a short-term as well as a long-term basis. The short-term processes involved in acclimation can be initiated within seconds or minutes upon exposure to a stress but may be transient in nature. That means that although these processes can be detected very soon after the onset of a stress, their activities also disappear rather rapidly. As a consequence, the lifetime of these processes is rather short. In contrast, long-term processes are less transient and thus usually exhibit a longer lifetime. However, the lifetimes of these processes overlap in time such that the short-term processes usually constitute the initial responses to a stress while the long-term processes are usually detected later in the acclimation process. Such a hierarchy of short- and long-term responses indicates that the attainment of the acclimated state can be considered a complex, time-nested response to a stress. Acclimation usually involves the differential expression of specific sets of genes associated with exposure to a particular stress. The remarkable capacity to regulate gene expression in response to environmental change in a time-nested manner is the basis of plant plasticity.

Figure 3.31 A schematic relationship between stress and acclimation (source: Hopkins W.G., Hüner N.P.A., 2009)

Adaptation and phenotypic plasticity

Plants have various mechanisms that allow them to survive and often prosper in the complex environments in which they live. Adaptation to the environment is characterized by genetic changes in the entire population that have been fixed by natural selection over many generations. In contrast, individual plants can also respond to changes in the environment, by directly altering their physiology or morphology to allow them to better survive the new environment. These responses require no new genetic modifications, and if the response of an individual improves with repeated exposure to the new environmental condition then the response is one of acclimation. Such responses are often referred to as phenotypic plasticity, and represent nonpermanent changes in the physiology or morphology of the individual that can be reversed if the prevailing environmental conditions change.

Individual plants may also show phenotypic plasticity that allows them to respond to environmental fluctuations

In addition to genetic changes in entire populations, individual plants may also show phenotypic plasticity; they may respond to fluctuations in the environment by directly altering their morphology and physiology. The changes associated with phenotypic plasticity require no new genetic modifications, and many are reversible. Both genetic adaptation and phenotypic plasticity can contribute to the plant's overall tolerance of extremes in their abiotic environment. As a consequence, a plant's physiology and morphology are not static but are very dynamic and responsive to their environment. The ability of biennial plants and winter cultivars of cereal grains to survive over winter is an example of acclimation to low temperature. The process of acclimation to a stress is known as hardening and plants that have the capacity to acclimate are commonly referred to as hardy species. In contrast, those plants that exhibit a minimal capacity to acclimate to a specific stress are referred to as nonhardy species.

Imbalances of abiotic factors have primary and secondary effects on plants

Plants may experience physiological stress when an abiotic factor is deficient or in excess (referred to as an imbalance). The deficiency or excess may be chronic or intermittent. Abiotic conditions to which native plants are adapted may cause physiological stress to non-native plants. Most agricultural crops, for example, are cultivated in regions to which they are not highly adapted. Field crops are estimated to produce only 22% of their genetic potential for yield because of suboptimal climatic and soil conditions.

Imbalances of abiotic factors in the environment cause primary and secondary effects in plants. Primary effects such as reduced water potential and cellular dehydration directly alter the physical and biochemical properties of cells, which then lead to secondary effects. These secondary effects, such as reduced metabolic activity, ion cytotoxicity, and the production of reactive oxygen species, initiate and accelerate the disruption of cellular integrity, and may lead ultimately to cell death. Different abiotic factors may cause similar primary physiological effects because they affect the same cellular processes. This is the case for water deficit, salinity, and freezing, all of which cause reduction in hydrostatic pressure (turgor pressure, Ψp) and cellular dehydration. Secondary physiological effects caused by different abiotic imbalances may overlap substantially. It is evident that imbalances in many abiotic factors reduce cell proliferation, photosynthesis, membrane integrity, and protein stability, and induce production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), oxidative damage, and cell death.

The light-dependent inhibition of photosynthesis

As photoautotrophs, plants are dependent upon – and exquisitely adapted to – visible light for the maintenance of a positive carbon balance through photosynthesis. Higher energy wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, especially in the ultraviolet range, can inhibit cellular processes by damaging membranes, proteins, and nucleic acids. However, even in the visible range, irradiances far above the light saturation point of photosynthesis cause high light stress, which can disrupt chloroplast structure and reduce photosynthetic rates, a process known as photoinhibition.

Photoinhibition by high light leads to the production of destructive forms of oxygen

Excess light excitation arriving at the PSII reaction center can lead to its inactivation by the direct damage of the D1 protein. Excess absorption of light energy by photosynthetic pigments also produces excess electrons outpacing the availability of NADP+ to act as an electron sink at PSI (Figure 3.32). The excess electrons produced by PSI lead to the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), notably superoxide (O2⚫-). Superoxide and other ROS are low-molecular-weight molecules that function in signaling and, in excess, cause oxidative damage to proteins, lipids, RNA, and DNA. The oxidative stress generated by excessive ROS destroys cellular and metabolic functions and leads to cell death.

Figure 3.32 Changes in the light-response curves of photosynthesis caused by photoinhibition (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2002)

Temperature stress

Mesophytic plants (terrestrial plants adapted to temperate environments that are neither excessively wet nor dry) have a relatively narrow temperature range of about 10°C for optimal growth and development. Outside of this range, varying amounts of damage occur, depending on the magnitude and duration of the temperature fluctuation. In this section we will discuss three types of temperature stress: high temperatures, low temperatures above freezing, and temperatures below freezing. Most actively growing tissues of higher plants are tillable to survive extended exposure to temperatures above 45°C or even short exposure to temperatures of 55°C or above. However, nongrowing cells or dehydrated tissues (e.g., seeds and pollen) remain viable at much higher temperatures. Pollen grains of some species can survive 70°C and some dry seeds can tolerate temperatures as high as 120°C.

Most plants with access to abundant water are able to maintain leaf temperatures below 45°C by evaporative cooling, even at elevated ambient temperatures. However, high leaf temperatures combined with minimal evaporative cooling causes heat stress. Leaf temperatures can rise to 4 to 5°C above ambient air temperature in bright sunlight near midday, when soil water deficit causes partial stomatal closure or when high relative humidity reduces the gradient driving evaporative cooling. Increases in leaf temperature during the day can be more pronounced in plants experiencing drought and high irradiance from direct sunlight.

Temperature stress can result in damaged membranes and enzymes

Plant membranes consist of a lipid bilayer interspersed with proteins and sterols, and any abiotic factor that alters membrane properties can disrupt cellular processes. The physical properties of the lipids greatly influence the activities of the integral membrane proteins, including H+-pumping ATPases, carriers, and channel-forming proteins that regulate the transport of ions and other solutes. High temperatures cause an increase in the fluidity of membrane lipids and a decrease in the strength of hydrogen bonds and electrostatic interactions between polar groups of proteins within the aqueous phase of the membrane. High temperatures thus modify membrane composition and structure, and can cause leakage of ions. High tempeatures can also lead to a loss of the three-dimensional structure required for correct function of enzymes or structural cellular components, thereby leading to loss of proper enzyme structure and activity. Misfolded proteins often aggregate and precipitate, creating serious problems within the cell.

Temperature stress can inhibit photosynthesis

Photosynthesis and respiration are both inhibited by temperature stress. Typically, photosynthetic rates are inhibited by high temperatures to a greater extent than respiratory rates. Although chloroplast enzymes such as rubisco, rubisco activase, NADP-G3P dehydrogenase, and PEP carboxylase become unstable at high temperatures, the temperatures at which these enzymes began to denature and lose activity are distinctly higher than the temperatures at which photosynthetic rates begin to decline. This would indicate that the early stages of heat injury to photosynthesis are more directly related to changes in membrane properties and to uncoupling of the energy transfer mechanisms in chloroplasts.

This imbalance between photosynthesis and respiration is one of the main reasons for the deleterious effects of high temperatures. On an individual plant, leaves growing in the shade have a lower temperature compensation point than leaves that are exposed to the sun (and heat). Reduced photosynthate production may also result from stress-induced stomatal closure, reduction in leaf canopy area, and regulation of assimilate partitioning.

Freezing temperatures cause ice crystal formation and dehydration

Freezing temperatures result in intra- and extracellular ice crystal formation. Intracellular ice formation physically shears membranes and organelles. Extracellular ice crystals, which usually form before the cell contents freeze, may not cause immediate physical damage to cells, but they do cause cellular dehydration. This is because ice formation substantially lowers the water potential (Ψw) in the apoplast, resulting in a gradient from high Ψw in the symplast to low Ψw in the apoplast. Consequently, water moves from the symplast to the apoplast, resulting in cellular dehydration. Cells that are already dehydrated, such as those in seeds and pollen, are relatively less affected by ice crystal formation. Ice usually forms first within the intercellular spaces and in the xylem vessels, along which the ice can quickly propagate. This ice formation is not lethal to hardy plants, and the tissue recovers fully if warmed. However, when plants are exposed to freezing temperatures for an extended period, the growth of extracellular ice crystals leads to physical destruction of membranes and excessive dehydration.

Imbalances in soil minerals

Imbalances in the mineral content of soils can affect plant fitness either indirectly, by affecting plant nutritional status or water uptake, or directly, through toxic effects on plant cells.

Soil mineral content can result in plant stress in various ways

Several anomalies associated with the elemental composition of soils can result in plant stress, including high concentrations of salts (e.g., Na+ and Cl-) and toxic ions (e.g., As and Cd), and low concentrations of essential mineral nutrients, such as Ca2+, Mg2+, N, and P. The term salinity is used to describe excessive accumulation of salt in the soil solution. Salinity stress has two components: nonspecific osmotic stress that causes water deficits, and specific ion effects resulting from the accumulation of toxic ions, which disturb nutrient acquisition and result in cytotoxicity. Salt-tolerant plants genetically adapted to salinity are termed halophytes, while less salt-tolerant plants that are not adapted to salinity are termed glycophytes.

Soil salinity occurs naturally and as the result of improper water management practices

In natural environments, there are many causes of salinity. Terrestrial plants encounter high salinity close to the seashore and in estuaries where seawater and freshwater mix or replace each other with the tides. The movement of seawater upstream into rivers can be substantial, depending on the strength of the tidal surge. Far inland, natural seepage from geologic marine deposits can wash salt into adjoining areas. Evaporation and transpiration remove pure water (as vapor) from the soil, concentrating the salts in the soil solution. Soil salinity is also increased when water droplets from the ocean disperse over land and evaporate.

Human activities also contribute to soil salinization. Improper water management practices associated with intensive agriculture can cause substantial salinization of croplands. In many areas of the world, salinity threatens the production of staple foods. Irrigation water in semiarid and arid regions is often saline. Only halophytes, the most salt-tolerant plants, can tolerate high levels of salts. Glycophytic crops cannot be grown with saline irrigation water.

Saline soils are often associated with high concentrations of NaCl, but in some areas Ca2+, Mg2+, and SO4- are also present in high concentrations in saline soils. High Na+ concentrations that occur in sodic soils (soils in which Na+ occupies ⩾10% of the cation exchange capacity) not only injure plants but also degrade the soil structure, decreasing porosity and water permeability. Salt incursion into the soil solution causes water deficits in leaves and inhibits plant growth and metabolism.

High cytosolic Na+ and Cl- denature proteins and destabilize membranes

The most widespread example of a specific ion effect is the cytotoxic accumulation of Na+ and Cl- ions under saline conditions. Under non-saline conditions, the cytosol of higher plant cells contains about 100 mM K+ and less than 10 mM Na+, an ionic environment in which enzymes are optimally functional. In saline environments, cytosolic Na+ and Cl- increase to more than 100 mM, and these ions become cytotoxic. High concentrations of salt cause protein denaturation and membrane destabilization by reducing the hydration of these macromolecules. However, Na+ is a more potent denaturant than K+.

At high concentrations, apoplastic Na+ also competes for sites on transport proteins that are necessary for high-affinity uptake of K+, an essential macronutrient. Further, Na+ displaces Ca2+ from sites on the cell wall, reducing Ca2+ activity in the apoplast and resulting in greater Na+ influx, presumably through nonselective cation channels. Reduced apoplastic Ca2+ concentrations caused by excess Na+ may also restrict the availability of Ca2+ in the cytosol. Since cytosolic Ca2+ is necessary to activate Na+ detoxification via efflux across the plasma membrane, elevated external Na+ has the ability to block its own detoxification.

Developmental and physiological mechanisms against environmental stress

Plants can modify their life cycles to avoid abiotic stress

One way plants can adapt to extreme environmental conditions is through modification of their life cycles. For example, annual desert plants have short life cycles: they complete them during the periods when water is available, and are dormant (as seeds) during dry periods. Deciduous trees of the temperate zone shed their leaves before the winter so that sensitive leaf tissue is not damaged by cold temperatures. During less predictable stressful events (e.g., a summer of significant but erratic rainfall) the growth habits of some species may confer a degree of tolerance to these conditions. For example, plants that can grow and flower over an extended period (indeterminate growth) are often more tolerant to erratic environmental extremes than plants that develop preset numbers of leaves and flower over only very short periods (determinate growth).

Phenotypic changes in leaf structure and behavior are important stress responses

Because of their roles in photosynthesis, leaves (or their equivalent) are crucial to the survival of a plant. To function, leaves must be exposed to sunlight and air, but this also makes them particularly vulnerable to environmental extremes. Plants have thus evolved various mechanisms that enable them to avoid or mitigate the effects of abiotic extremes to leaves. Such mechanisms include changes in leaf area, leaf orientation, trichomes, and the cuticle.

Turgor reduction is the earliest significant biophysical effect of water deficit. As a result, turgor-dependent processes such as leaf expansion and root elongation are the most sensitive to water deficits. When water deficit develops slowly enough to allow changes in developmental processes, it has several effects on growth, one of which is a limitation of leaf expansion. Because leaf expansion depends mostly on cell expansion, the principles that underlie the two processes are similar. Inhibition of cell expansion results in a slowing of leaf expansion early in the development of water deficits. The resulting smaller leaf area transpires less water, effectively conserving a limited water supply in the soil over a longer period. Altering leaf shape is another way that plants can reduce leaf area. Under conditions of water, heat, or salinity extremes, leaves may be narrower or may develop deeper lobes during development (Figure 3.33). The result is a reduced leaf surface area and therefore, reduced water loss and heat load (defined as amount of heat loss [cooling] required to maintain a leaf temperature close to air temperature). For protection against overheating during water deficit, the leaves of some plants may orient themselves away from the sun. Leaf orientation may also change in response to low oxygen availability.

Figure 3.33 Altered leaf shape can occur in response to environmental changes: leaf from outside (left) and inside (right) of a tree canopy (source: Taiz L., Zeiger E., 2010)

Plants can regulate stomatal aperture in response to dehydration stress

The ability to control stomatal aperture allows plants to respond quickly to a changing environment, for example to avoid excessive water loss or limit uptake of liquid or gaseous pollutants through stomata. Stomatal opening and closing is modulated by uptake and loss of water in guard cells, which changes their turgor pressure. Although guard cells can lose turgor as a result of a direct loss of water by evaporation to the atmosphere, stomatal closure in response to dehydration is almost always an active, energy-dependent process rather than a passive one. Abscisic acid (ABA) mediates the solute loss from guard cells that is triggered by a decrease in the water content of the leaf. Plants constantly modulate the concentration and cellular localization of ABA, and this allows them to respond quickly to environmental changes, such as fluctuations in water availability.

Plants adjust osmotically to drying soil by accumulating solutes

Osmotic adjustment is the capacity of plant cells to accumulate solutes and use them to lower Ψw during periods of osmotic stress. The adjustment involves a net increase in solute content per cell that is independent of the volume changes that result from loss of water. The decrease in ΨS (= osmotic potential) is typically limited to about 0.2 to 0.8 MPa, except in plants adapted to extremely dry conditions.

There are two main ways by which osmotic adjustment can take place. A plant may take up ions from the soil, or transport ions from other plant organs to the root, so that the solute concentration of the root cells increases. For example, increased uptake and accumulation of K+ will lead to decreases in ΨS due to the effect of the potassium ions on the osmotic pressure within the cell. This is a common event in saline areas, where ions such as potassium and calcium are readily available to the plant. The accumulation of ions during osmotic adjustment is predominantly restricted to the vacuoles, where the ions are kept out of contact with cytosolic enzymes or organelles.

When ions are compartmentalized in the vacuole, other solutes must accumulate in the cytoplasm to maintain water potential equilibrium within the cell. These solutes are called compatible solutes (or compatible osmolytes). Compatible solutes are organic compounds that are osmotically active in the cell, but do not destabilize the membrane or interfere with enzyme function, as high concentrations of ions can. Plant cells can hold large concentrations of these compounds without detrimental effects on metabolism. Common compatible solutes include amino acids such as proline, sugar alcohols such as mannitol, and quaternary ammonium compounds such as glycine betaine.

Phytochelatins chelate certain ions, reducing their reactivity and toxicity

Chelation is the binding of an ion with at least two ligating atoms within a chelating molecule. Chelating molecules can have different atoms available for ligation, such as sulfur (S), nitrogen (N), or oxygen (O), and these different atoms have different affinities for the ions they chelate. By wrapping itself around the ion it binds to form a complex, the chelating molecule renders the ion less chemically active, thereby reducing its potential toxicity. The complex is then usually translocated to other parts of the plant, or stored away from the cytoplasm (typically in the vacuole). Phytochelatins are low-molecular-weight thiols consisting of the amino acids glutamate, cysteine, and glycine, with the general form of (γ-Glu-Cys)nGly. The thiol groups act as ligands for ions of trace elements such as Cd and As. Once formed, the phytochelatin-metal complex is transported into the vacuole for storage.

Many plants have the capacity to acclimate to cold temperature

The ability to tolerate freezing temperatures under natural conditions varies greatly among tissues. Seeds and other partially dehydrated tissues, as well as fungal spores, can be kept indefinitely at temperatures near absolute zero (0 K, or -273°C), indicating that these very low temperatures are not intrinsically harmful. Hydrated, vegetative cells can also retain viability at freezing temperatures, provided that ice crystal formation can be restricted to the intercellular spaces and cellular dehydration is not too extreme.

Temperate plants have the capacity for cold acclimation – a process whereby exposure to low but nonlethal temperatures (typically above freezing) increases the capacity for low temperature survival. Cold acclimation in nature is induced in the early autumn by exposure to short days and nonfreezing, chilling temperatures, which combine to stop growth. A diffusible factor that promotes acclimation, most likely ABA, moves from leaves via the phloem to overwintering stems. ABA accumulates during cold acclimation and is necessary for this process.

Plants survive freezing temperatures by limiting ice formation

During rapid freezing, the protoplast, including the vacuole, may supercool; that is, the cellular water remains liquid because of its solute content, even at temperatures several degrees below its theoretical freezing point. Supercooling is common to many species of the hardwood forests. Cells can supercool to only about -40°C, the temperature at which ice forms spontaneously. Spontaneous ice formation sets the low-temperature limit at which many alpine and subarctic species that undergo deep supercooling can survive. It may also explain why the altitude of the timberline in mountain ranges is at or near the -40°C minimum isotherm. Several specialized plant proteins, termed antifreeze proteins, limit the growth of ice crystals through a mechanism independent of lowering of the freezing point of water. Synthesis of these antifreeze proteins is induced by cold temperatures. The proteins bind to the surfaces of ice crystals to prevent or slow further crystal growth.

Cold-resistant plants tend to have membranes with more unsaturated fatty acids

As temperatures drop, membranes may go through a phase transition from a flexible liquid-crystalline structure to a solid gel structure. The phase transition temperature varies with species (tropical species: 10-12°C; apples: 3-10°C) and the actual lipid composition of the membranes. Chilling-resistant plants tend to have membranes with more unsaturated fatty acids. Chilling-sensitive plants, on the other hand, have a high percentage of saturated fatty acid chains, and membranes with this composition tend to solidify into a semicrystalline state at a temperature well above 0°C. Prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures may result in an altered composition of membrane lipids, a form of acclimation. Certain transmembrane enzymes can alter lipid saturation, by introducing one or more double bonds into fatty acids. This modification lowers the temperature at which the membrane lipids begin a gradual phase change from fluid to semicrystalline form and allows membranes to remain fluid at lower temperatures, thus protecting the plant against damage from chilling.

A large variety of heat shock proteins can be induced by different environmental conditions

Under environmental extremes, protein structure is sensitive to disruption. Plants have several mechanisms to limit or avoid such problems, including osmotic adjustment for maintenance of hydration and chaperone proteins that physically interact with other proteins to facilitate protein folding, reduce misfolding and aggregation, and stabilize protein tertiary structure. In response to sudden 5 to 10°C increases in temperature, plants produce a unique set of chaperone proteins referred to as heat shock proteins (HSPs). Cells that have been induced to synthesize HSPs show improved thermal tolerance and can tolerate subsequent exposure to temperatures that otherwise would be lethal. Heat shock proteins are also induced by widely different environmental conditions, including water deficit, ABA treatment, wounding, low temperature, and salinity. Thus, cells that have previously experienced one condition may gain cross-protection against another.

During mild or short-term water shortage, photosynthesis is strongly inhibited, but phloem translocation is unaffected until the shortage becomes severe

Changes in the environment may stimulate shifts in metabolic pathways. When the supply of O2 is insufficient for aerobic respiration, roots first begin to ferment pyruvate to lactate through the action of lactate dehydrogenase; this recycles NADH to NAD+, allowing the maintenance of ATP production through glycolysis. Production of lactate (lactic acid) lowers the intracellular pH, inhibiting lactate dehydrogenase and activating pyruvate decarboxylase. These changes in enzyme activity quickly lead to a switch from lactate to ethanol production. The net yield of ATP in fermentation is only 2 moles of ATP per mole of hexose sugar catabolized (compared with 36 moles of ATP per mole of hexose respired in aerobic respiration). Thus, injury to root metabolism by O2 deficiency originates in part from a lack of ATP to drive essential metabolic processes such as root absorption of essential nutrients.

Water shortage decreases both photosynthesis and the consumption of assimilates in the expanding leaves. As a consequence, water shortage indirectly decreases the amount of photosynthate exported from leaves. Because phloem transport depends on pressure gradients, decreased water potential in the phloem during water deficit may inhibit the movement of assimilates. The ability to continue translocating assimilates is a key factor in almost all aspects of plant resistance to drought.