Characterizing drought stress and trait influence on maize yield under current and future conditions



Global climate change is predicted to increase temperatures, alter geographical patterns of rainfall and increase the frequency of extreme climatic events. Such changes are likely to alter the timing and magnitude of drought stresses experienced by crops. This study used new developments in the classification of crop water stress to first characterize the typology and frequency of drought-stress patterns experienced by European maize crops and their associated distributions of grain yield, and second determine the influence of the breeding traits anthesis-silking synchrony, maturity and kernel number on yield in different drought-stress scenarios, under current and future climates. Under historical conditions, a low-stress scenario occurred most frequently (ca. 40%), and three other stress types exposing crops to late-season stresses each occurred in ca. 20% of cases. A key revelation shown was that the four patterns will also be the most dominant stress patterns under 2050 conditions. Future frequencies of low drought stress were reduced by ca. 15%, and those of severe water deficit during grain filling increased from 18% to 25%. Despite this, effects of elevated CO2 on crop growth moderated detrimental effects of climate change on yield. Increasing anthesis-silking synchrony had the greatest effect on yield in low drought-stress seasonal patterns, whereas earlier maturity had the greatest effect in crops exposed to severe early-terminal drought stress. Segregating drought-stress patterns into key groups allowed greater insight into the effects of trait perturbation on crop yield under different weather conditions. We demonstrate that for crops exposed to the same drought-stress pattern, trait perturbation under current climates will have a similar impact on yield as that expected in future, even though the frequencies of severe drought stress will increase in future. These results have important ramifications for breeding of maize and have implications for studies examining genetic and physiological crop responses to environmental stresses.