Changes in growth and soil microbial communities in reciprocal grafting clones between Populus deltoides males and females exposed to water deficit conditions

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Key message

Our findings highlight that male-rooted clones (M/M and F/M) of Populus deltoides are more water-deficit tolerant than female-rooted clones (F/F and M/F), as shown by a smaller decrease in total biomass and net photosynthetic rate in the male-rooted clones.


It has been reported that graft clones (female scion and male rootstock) in poplars may be an option to mitigate the effects of water deficit on plants. However, the extent to which grafting mitigates the effect of soil water deficit on soil microorganisms remains poorly understood.


The research was designed to investigate the effects of soil water deficit on plant growth, soil microbial communities, and soil enzymatic activities of the reciprocal graft clones of P. deltoides.


Four different graft clones (female shoot scion and female rootstock, F/F; male shoot scion and female rootstock, M/F; male shoot scion and male rootstock scion, M/M; and female shoot scion and male rootstock, F/M) in P. deltoides were used. Two watering regimes, irrigation and soil water deficit (i.e., non-irrigation conditions, natural levels of precipitation) were included in the experiments. The microbial community structure was quantified using phospholipid fatty acid.


Under water deficit, the decreases in total biomass, net photosynthetic rates, and leaf nitrogen content were more evident in M/M and F/M than in F/F and M/F. Bacterial phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) and actinomycetal PLFAs remained unaffected in the four graft clones. In contrast, during soil water deficit, fungal PLFAs were higher in M/M and F/M soil coincided with higher extracellular activities of β-1,4-N-acetyl-glucosaminidase and leucine aminopeptidase.


Male-rooted clones (M/M and F/M) are more tolerant to water deficit than female-rooted clones (F/F and M/F). It is possible that the better performance of M/M and F/M, when exposed to water deficit, is associated mainly with higher fine root activity, greater specific root length and root/shoot ratio as well as increased fungal PLFAs.

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Data availability

The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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Correspondence to Baoli Duan.

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Contribution of the co-authors

Weilong Liu led the manuscript preparation with substantial contributions from all the coauthors. Yanping Wang, Xu Gong and Shuxin Li contributed substantially to the data collection. Joseph M. Smoak contributed significantly to the critical revisions of the manuscript. Baoli Duan supervised the research work and revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Liu, W., Wang, Y., Gong, X. et al. Changes in growth and soil microbial communities in reciprocal grafting clones between Populus deltoides males and females exposed to water deficit conditions. Annals of Forest Science 76, 118 (2019) doi:10.1007/s13595-019-0897-9

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  • Grafting
  • Inorganic nitrogen pool
  • PLFAs
  • Nitrogen cycling