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Water use efficiency by alfalfa: Mechanisms involving anti-oxidation and osmotic adjustment under drought


Water use and mechanisms relating to osmotic adjustment and anti-oxidation were investigated in alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) plants under reduced water availability. Water use efficiency (WUE), MDA and proline contents, and antioxidant enzyme activities were measured in three alfalfa cultivars under three levels of soil water availability in a greenhouse pot experiment. WUE was determined indirectly using discriminating carbon isotope composition. WUE increased with the severity of water deficit. Under all water regimes examined, cv. Longdong showed the greatest WUE values and the least reduction in biomass production under a 50% soil field water capacity. Stomatal density increased with increasing water deficit, but stomatal conductance decreased. This suggests that water stress can increase WUE by modifying stomatal regulation of the balance between the rates of CO2 assimilation and water loss. The maintenance of leaf physiological function and leaf water status suggests that alfalfa has some mechanisms to maintain cell function when the plant is subjected to water deficit. The increase in the MDA content under drought conditions indicates that some degree of damage to cell membranes is unavoidable, whereas other results showing increases in the contents of proline and soluble sugars and activities of superoxide dismutase, peroxide dismutase, and catalase indicate how cell function may be to some extent maintained to result in the higher WUE. Alfalfa is shown to exhibit cultivar-specific differences in WUE with the maintenance of cell function under water deficit being related to anti-oxidation and osmotic adjustment.

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ascorbate peroxidase



G s :

stomatal conductance


nitro blue tetrazolium

P n :

leaf net photosynthetic rate


peroxide dismutase


leaf relative water content


stomatal density


superoxide dismutase


soluble sugars


water use efficiency


discriminating carbon isotope composition


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Correspondence to Sh. He.

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He, S., Liu, G. & Yang, H. Water use efficiency by alfalfa: Mechanisms involving anti-oxidation and osmotic adjustment under drought. Russ J Plant Physiol 59, 348–355 (2012).

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  • Medicago sativa
  • soil water deficit
  • stomatal regulation
  • osmotic adjustment
  • water use efficiency (WUE)
  • carbon isotope composition (δ13C)