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J Exp Bot. 2012 Nov;63(18):6481-91. doi: 10.1093/jxb/ers303. Epub 2012 Oct 23.

Phenotypic and developmental plasticity of xylem in hybrid poplar saplings subjected to experimental drought, nitrogen fertilization, and shading.

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University of Alberta, Department of Renewable Resources, 4-42 Earth Sciences Building, Edmonton, AB, Canada, T6G 2E3.


Variation in xylem structure and function has been extensively studied across different species with a wide taxonomic, geographical, and ecological coverage. In contrast, our understanding of how xylem of a single species can adjust to different growing condition remains limited. Here phenotypic and developmental plasticity in xylem traits of hybrid poplar (Populus trichocarpa×deltoides) was studied. Clonally propagated saplings were grown under experimental drought, nitrogen fertilization, and shade for >30 d. Xylem hydraulic and anatomical traits were subsequently examined in stem segments taken from two different vertical positions along the plant's main axis. The experimental treatments affected growth and development and induced changes in xylem phenotype. Across all treatments, the amount of leaf area supported by stem segments (A(L)) scaled linearly with stem native hydraulic conductivity (K (native)), suggesting that the area of assimilating leaves is constrained by the xylem transport capacity. In turn, K (native) was mainly driven by the size of xylem cross-sectional area (A(X)). Moreover, the structural and functional properties of xylem varied significantly. Vulnerability to cavitation, measured as the xylem pressure inducing 50% loss of conductivity (P50), ranged from -1.71 MPa to -0.15 MPa in saplings subjected to drought and nitrogen fertilization, respectively. Across all treatments and stem segment positions, P50 was tightly correlated with wood density. In contrast, no relationship between P50 and xylem-specific conductivity (K (S)) was observed. The results of this study enhance our knowledge of plant hydraulic acclimation and provide insights into common trade-offs that exist in xylem structure and function.

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