Water deficit adversely affects the growth and productivity of annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum
Lam.). The exogenous application of chitosan (CTS) has gained extensive interests due to its effect on improving drought resistance. This research aimed to determine the role of exogenous CTS on annual ryegrass in response to water stress. Here, we investigated the impact of exogenous CTS on the physiological responses and transcriptome changes of annual ryegrass variety “Tetragold” under osmotic stress induced by exposing them to 20% polyethylene glycol (PEG)-6000. Our experimental results demonstrated that 50 mg/L exogenous CTS had the optimal effect on promoting seed germination under osmotic stress. Pre-treatment of annual ryegrass seedlings with 500 mg/L CTS solution reduced the level of electrolyte leakage (EL) as well as the contents of malondialdehyde (MDA) and proline and enhanced the activities of superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), peroxidase (POD), and ascorbic acid peroxidase (APX) under osmotic stress. In addition, CTS increased soluble sugars and chlorophyll (Chl) content, net photosynthetic rate (A), stomatal conductance (gs), water use efficiency (WUE), and transpiration rate (E) in annual ryegrass seedlings in response to three and six days of osmotic stress. Transcriptome analysis further provided a comprehensive understanding of underlying molecular mechanisms of CTS impact. To be more specific, in contrast of non-treated seedlings, the distinct changes of gene expressions of CTS-treated seedlings were shown to be tightly related to carbon metabolism, photosynthesis, and plant hormone. Altogether, exogenous CTS could elicit drought-related genes in annual ryegrass, leading to resistance to osmotic stress via producing antioxidant enzymes and maintaining intact cell membranes and photosynthetic rates. This robust evidence supports the potential of the application of exogenous CTS, which will be helpful for determining the suitability and productivity of agricultural crops.
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