Maize is known to be susceptible to drought stress, which negatively affects vegetative growth and biomass production, as well as the formation of reproductive organs and yield parameters. In this study, 27 responsive traits of germination (G) and seedlings growth were evaluated for 40 accessions of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) germplasm collection, under no stress and simulated drought stress treatments by 10%, 15%, and 20% of polyethylene glycol (PEG). The three treatments significantly reduced G% and retarded seedlings growth, particularly the 15% and 20% PEG treatments; these two treatments also resulted in a significant increase of abnormal seedlings (AS). The heritability (H2
) and correlations of the traits were estimated, and drought tolerance indices (DTIs) were calculated for traits and accessions. The H2
of G% values were reduced, and H2
for AS% increased as the PEG stress increased. Positive correlations were found between most trait pairs, particularly shoot and root traits, with 48 highly significant correlations under no stress and 25 highly significant correlations under the 10% PEG treatments, particularly for shoot and root traits. The medium to high heritability of shoot and root seedling traits provides a sound basis for further genetic analyses. PCA analysis clearly grouped accessions with high DTIs together and the accessions with low DTIs together, indicating that the DTI indicates the stress tolerance level of maize germplasm. However, the resemblance in DTI values does not clearly reflect the origin or taxonomic assignments to subspecies and varieties of the examined accessions.
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