Transgenic Populus tremula x alba (717-1B4) plants with reduced expression of a tonoplast sucrose efflux transporter, PtaSUT4, exhibit reduced shoot growth compared to wild type (WT) under sustained mild drought. The present study was undertaken to determine whether SUT4-RNAi directly or indirectly altered poplar predisposition and/or response to changes in soil water availability. While sucrose and hexose levels were constitutively elevated in shoot organs, expression responses to drought were most altered in the root tips of SUT4-RNAi plants. Prior to any drought treatment, constitutively elevated transcript levels of abscisic acid biosynthetic genes and bark/vegetative storage proteins suggested altered metabolism in root tips of RNAi plants. Stronger drought-stimulation of stress-inducible genes encoding late-embryogenesis-Abundant proteins in transgenic roots was consistent with increased vulnerability to soil drying. Transcript evidence suggested an RNAi effect on intercellular water trafficking by aquaporins in stem xylem during soil drying and recovery. Co-expression network analysis predicted altered integration of abscisic acid sensing/signaling with ethylene and jasmonate sensing/signaling in RNAi compared to WT roots. The overall conclusion is that steepened shoot-root sugar gradient in RNAi plants increased sensitivity of root tips to decreasing soil water availability.
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