Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Adaptation of maize source leaf metabolism to stress related disturbances in carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus balance

Urte Schlüter1, Christian Colmsee2, Uwe Scholz2, Andrea Bräutigam3, Andreas PM Weber3, Nina Zellerhoff4, Marcel Bucher4, Holger Fahnenstich5 and Uwe Sonnewald1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Division of Biochemistry, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Staudtstr. 5, 91058, Erlangen, Germany

2 Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Bioinformatics and Information Technology Group, Corrensstr. 3, 06466, Gatersleben, Germany

3 Plant Biochemistry Department, Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, 40225, Duesseldorf, Germany

4 Botanical Institute, Albertus Magnus Platz, University of Cologne, 90923, Cologne, Germany

5 Metanomics GmbH, Tegeler Weg 33, 10589, Berlin, Germany

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BMC Genomics 2013, 14:442  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-14-442

Published: 3 July 2013



Abiotic stress causes disturbances in the cellular homeostasis. Re-adjustment of balance in carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus metabolism therefore plays a central role in stress adaptation. However, it is currently unknown which parts of the primary cell metabolism follow common patterns under different stress conditions and which represent specific responses.


To address these questions, changes in transcriptome, metabolome and ionome were analyzed in maize source leaves from plants suffering low temperature, low nitrogen (N) and low phosphorus (P) stress. The selection of maize as study object provided data directly from an important crop species and the so far underexplored C4 metabolism. Growth retardation was comparable under all tested stress conditions. The only primary metabolic pathway responding similar to all stresses was nitrate assimilation, which was down-regulated. The largest group of commonly regulated transcripts followed the expression pattern: down under low temperature and low N, but up under low P. Several members of this transcript cluster could be connected to P metabolism and correlated negatively to different phosphate concentration in the leaf tissue. Accumulation of starch under low temperature and low N stress, but decrease in starch levels under low P conditions indicated that only low P treated leaves suffered carbon starvation.


Maize employs very different strategies to manage N and P metabolism under stress. While nitrate assimilation was regulated depending on demand by growth processes, phosphate concentrations changed depending on availability, thus building up reserves under excess conditions. Carbon and energy metabolism of the C4 maize leaves were particularly sensitive to P starvation.

Abiotic stress; Nutrient stress; Transcriptome; Metabolome; Ionome; Maize