Access to adequate irrigation resources is critical for sustained agricultural production, and rice, a staple cereal grain for half of the world population, is one of the biggest users of irrigation. To reduce water use, several water saving irrigation systems have been developed for rice production, but a reliable system to evaluate cultivars for water stress tolerance is still lacking. Here, seven rice cultivars that have diverse yield potential under water stress were evaluated in a field study using four continuous irrigation regimes varying from saturation to wilting point. To understand the relationship between water stress and yield potential, the physiological and leaf metabolic responses were investigated at the critical transition between vegetative and reproductive growth stages. Twenty-nine metabolite markers including carbohydrates, amino acids and organic acids were found to significantly differ among the seven cultivars in response to increasing water stress levels with amino acids increasing but organic acids and carbohydrates showing mixed responses. Overall, our data suggest that, in response to increasing water stress, rice cultivars that do not show a significant yield loss accumulate carbohydrates (fructose, glucose, and myo-inositol), and this is associated with a moderate reduction in stomatal conductance (gs
), particularly under milder stress conditions. In contrast, cultivars that had significant yield loss due to water stress had the greatest reduction in gs
, relatively lower accumulation of carbohydrates, and relatively high increases in relative chlorophyll content (SPAD) and leaf temperature (Tm). These data demonstrate the existence of genetic variation in yield under different water stress levels which results from a suite of physiological and biochemical responses to water stress. Our study, therefore, suggests that in rice there are different physiological and metabolic strategies that result in tolerance to water stress that should be considered in developing new cultivars for deficit irrigation production systems that use less water.
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