The drought tolerance and capacity to recover after drought are important for plant growth and yield. In this study, two maize lines with different drought resistance were used to investigate the effects of different drought durations and subsequent re-watering on photosynthetic capacity, electron transfer and energy distribution, and antioxidative defense mechanisms of maize. Under short drought, maize plants decreased stomatal conductance and photosynthetic electron transport rate, and increased NPQ (Non-photochemical quenching) to dissipate excess excitation energy in time and protect the photosynthetic apparatus. With the increased drought duration, NPQ, antioxidase activity, PItotal
(total performance index), ∆I/Io, ψEo
(quantum yield for electron transport),
(efficiency/probability that an electron moves further than QA−
(efficiency/probability with which an electron from the intersystem electron carriers is transferred to reduce end electron acceptors at the PSI acceptor side) and φRo
(the quantum yield for the reduction of the end electron acceptors at the PSI acceptor side) were significantly reduced, while Y(NO) (quantum yield of nonregulated energy dissipation) and MDA (malondialdehyde) began to quickly increase. The photosynthetic rate and capacity of photosynthetic electron transport could not recover to the level of the plants subjected to normal water status after re-watering. These findings indicated that long drought damaged the PSI (photosystem I) and PSII (photosystem II) reaction center and decreased the electron transfer efficiency, and this damage could not be recovered by re-watering. Different drought resistance and recovery levels of photosynthetic performance were achieved by different maize lines. Compared with D340, D1798Z had higher NPQ and antioxidase activity, which was able to maintain functionality for longer in response to progressive drought, and it could also recover at more severe drought after re-watering, which indicated its higher tolerance to drought. It was concluded that the capacity of the energy dissipation and antioxidant enzyme system is crucial to mitigate the effects caused by drought, and the capacity to recover after re-watering was dependent on the severity and persistence of drought, adaptability, and recovery differences of the maize lines. The results provide a profound insight to understand the maize functional traits’ responses to drought stresses and re-watering.
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