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Open Access Research article

Rapid and long-term effects of water deficit on gas exchange and hydraulic conductance of silver birch trees grown under varying atmospheric humidity

Arne Sellin*, Aigar Niglas, Eele Õunapuu-Pikas and Priit Kupper

Author Affiliations

Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, University of Tartu, Lai 40, Tartu 51005, Estonia

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BMC Plant Biology 2014, 14:72  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-14-72

Published: 24 March 2014

Abstract

Background

Effects of water deficit on plant water status, gas exchange and hydraulic conductance were investigated in Betula pendula under artificially manipulated air humidity in Eastern Estonia. The study was aimed to broaden an understanding of the ability of trees to acclimate with the increasing atmospheric humidity predicted for northern Europe. Rapidly-induced water deficit was imposed by dehydrating cut branches in open-air conditions; long-term water deficit was generated by seasonal drought.

Results

The rapid water deficit quantified by leaf (ΨL) and branch water potentials (ΨB) had a significant (P < 0.001) effect on gas exchange parameters, while inclusion of ΨB in models resulted in a considerably better fit than those including ΨL, which supports the idea that stomatal openness is regulated to prevent stem rather than leaf xylem dysfunction. Under moderate water deficit (ΨL≥-1.55 MPa), leaf conductance to water vapour (gL), transpiration rate and leaf hydraulic conductance (KL) were higher (P < 0.05) and leaf temperature lower in trees grown in elevated air humidity (H treatment) than in control trees (C treatment). Under severe water deficit (ΨL<-1.55 MPa), the treatments showed no difference. The humidification manipulation influenced most of the studied characteristics, while the effect was to a great extent realized through changes in soil water availability, i.e. due to higher soil water potential in H treatment. Two functional characteristics (gL, KL) exhibited higher (P < 0.05) sensitivity to water deficit in trees grown under increased air humidity.

Conclusions

The experiment supported the hypothesis that physiological traits in trees acclimated to higher air humidity exhibit higher sensitivity to rapid water deficit with respect to two characteristics - leaf conductance to water vapour and leaf hydraulic conductance. Disproportionate changes in sensitivity of stomatal versus leaf hydraulic conductance to water deficit will impose greater risk of desiccation-induced hydraulic dysfunction on the plants, grown under high atmospheric humidity, in case of sudden weather fluctuations, and might represent a potential threat in hemiboreal forest ecosystems. There is no trade-off between plant hydraulic capacity and photosynthetic water-use efficiency on short time scale.

Keywords:
Betula pendula; Branch water potential; Climate change; Hydraulic conductance; Leaf water potential; Net photosynthesis; Silver birch; Stomatal conductance; Water-use efficiency