Open Access Research article

Genome-wide expression profiling of maize in response to individual and combined water and nitrogen stresses

Sabrina Humbert14, Sanjeena Subedi2, Jonathan Cohn3, Bin Zeng1, Yong-Mei Bi1, Xi Chen3, Tong Zhu3, Paul D McNicholas2 and Steven J Rothstein1*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 1K4, Canada

2 Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 1K4, Canada

3 Syngenta Biotechnology Inc, 3054 Cornwallis Rd, Research Triangle Park, NC, 27709, USA

4 Current Address: Pioneer Hi-Bred, 7000 62nd Ave, Johnston, Iowa, 50131, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Genomics 2013, 14:3  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-14-3

Published: 16 January 2013



Water and nitrogen are two of the most critical inputs required to achieve the high yield potential of modern corn varieties. Under most agricultural settings however they are often scarce and costly. Fortunately, tremendous progress has been made in the past decades in terms of modeling to assist growers in the decision making process and many tools are now available to achieve more sustainable practices both environmentally and economically. Nevertheless large gaps remain between our empirical knowledge of the physiological changes observed in the field in response to nitrogen and water stresses, and our limited understanding of the molecular processes leading to those changes.


This work examines in particular the impact of simultaneous stresses on the transcriptome. In a greenhouse setting, corn plants were grown under tightly controlled nitrogen and water conditions, allowing sampling of various tissues and stress combinations. A microarray profiling experiment was performed using this material and showed that the concomitant presence of nitrogen and water limitation affects gene expression to an extent much larger than anticipated. A clustering analysis also revealed how the interaction between the two stresses shapes the patterns of gene expression over various levels of water stresses and recovery.


Overall, this study suggests that the molecular signature of a specific combination of stresses on the transcriptome might be as unique as the impact of individual stresses, and hence underlines the difficulty to extrapolate conclusions obtained from the study of individual stress responses to more complex settings.

Drought; Maize; Nitrogen; Microarray; Clustering analysis; Abiotic stress