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Physiological and transcriptomic analysis highlight key metabolic pathways in relation to drought tolerance in Rhododendron delavayi


Rhododendron delavayi is an alpine evergreen ornamental plant, but water shortage limits its growth and development in urban gardens. However, the adaptive mechanism of alpine evergreen rhododendrons to drought remains unclear. Here, a water control experiment was conducted to study the physiological and transcriptomic response of R. delavayi to drought. The drought treatment for 9 days decreased photosynthetic rate, induced accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and damaged chloroplast ultrastructure of R. delavayi. However, the photosynthetic rate quickly recovered to the level before treatment when the plants were re-watered. De novo assembly of RNA-Seq data generated 86,855 unigenes with an average length of 1870 bp. A total of 22,728 differentially expressed genes (DEGs) were identified between the control and drought plants. The expression of most DEGs related to photosynthesis were down-regulated during drought stress, and were up-regulated when the plants were re-watered, including the DEGs encoding subunits of light-harvesting chlorophyll-protein complex, photosystem II and photosystem I reaction center pigment-protein complexes, and photosynthetic electron transport. The expressions of many DEGs related to signal transduction, flavonoid biosynthesis and antioxidant activity were also significantly affected by drought stress. The results indicated that the response of R. delavayi to drought involved multiple physiological processes and metabolic pathways. Photosynthetic adjustment, ROS-scavenging system, abscisic acid and brassinosteroid signal transduction pathway may play important roles to improve drought tolerance of R. delavayi. Our findings provided valuable information for understanding the mechanisms of drought tolerance employed by Rhododendron species.

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Abscisic acid


ABRE-binding factor


Anthocyanidin synthase


Ascorbate peroxidase




Chalcone synthase


Clusters of orthologous groups of protein


Differentially expressed genes




Flavanone 3-hydroxylase


False discovery rate


Flavonol synthase


Gene ontology


Stomatal conductance


Glutathione peroxidase


Kyoto encyclopedia of genes and genomes


Light-harvesting chlorophyll–protein complex




Non-redundant protein


Osmiophilic granules

Pn :

Net photosynthetic rate






Photosystem I


Photosystem II


Reactive oxygen species


Superoxide dismutase


Short time-series expression miner


Transmission electron microscopy

Tr :

Transpiration rate


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Funding was provided by National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 31760229, 31670342), Program of Science and Technology Talents Training in Yunnan Province (Grant No. 2016HA005), Science and Technology Plan of Yunnan Province (Grant No. 2015BB013), and Applied Basic Research Project of Yunnan Province (Grant No. 2016FB058).

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Correspondence to Shi-Bao Zhang.

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Cai, YF., Wang, JH., Zhang, L. et al. Physiological and transcriptomic analysis highlight key metabolic pathways in relation to drought tolerance in Rhododendron delavayi. Physiol Mol Biol Plants 25, 991–1008 (2019).

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  • Drought
  • Photosynthesis
  • Photoprotection
  • Transcriptome
  • Rhododendron delavayi