Evolution of drought tolerance and defense: dependence of tradeoffs on mechanism, environment and defense switching


  • Riston Haugen,

  • Lexi Steffes,

  • Joy Wolf,

  • Paul Brown,

  • Steven Matzner,

  • David H. Siemens

R. Haugen, L. Steffes and D. H. Siemens (davidsiemens@bhsu.edu), Biology, 1200 University St., Black Hills State Univ., Spearfish, SD 57799-9099, USA. – J. Wolf, Geography, Univ. of Wisconsin, Parkside. Kenosha, WI 53141, USA. – P. Brown, Environmental Studies, Trinity Western Univ., Langley, B.C., Canada. – S. Matzner, Biology, Augustana College, 2001 S. Summit Ave. Sioux Falls, SD 57197, USA.


Plants evolve defenses against herbivores and pathogens in stressful environments; however, plants that evolve tolerances to other environmental stressors may have compromised defenses. Such tradeoffs involving defenses may depend on limited resources or otherwise stressful environments; however, the effect of stressful environments on defense expression might be different for different genotypes (G×E). To test these predictions, we studied genetic variation and co-variation of drought stress tolerance and defenses at two levels of genetic variation: between and within closely related species. We did this across an experimental drought stress gradient in a growth room for species for which genetic variation in drought tolerance was likely. In apparent contrast to predictions, the species Boechera holboellii (Brassicaceae) from lower and dryer elevations had slower inherent growth rates and correspondingly higher total defensive glucosinolate concentrations than the closely related species B. stricta from higher elevations. Thus, B. holboellii was both drought tolerant and defended; however, optimality theory does predict tradeoffs between defense and growth. Differences between species in the direct effect of water deficiency on glucosinolate production did not obscure the grow-or-defend tradeoff. B. holboellii may also have been more resistant to the specialist herbivore Plutella xylostella; a trend that was less clear because it depended on plant development and water deficient conditions. At finer scales of genetic variation, there was significant variation among families and naturally occurring inbred lines of B. stricta in drought tolerance measured as inherent growth, the reaction norm of growth across drought treatments, shoot water potential, and transpiration rates. Evidence for tradeoffs was also found within B. stricta in genetic correlations between resistance and transpiration rates, or glucosinolates and growth rates. No G×E was detected at these finer scales of genetic variation, although sometimes the tradeoff was dependent on drought conditions. Direct effects of drought stress resulted in an apparent plastic switch between resistance and tolerance to damage, which might be a cost avoidance mechanism because tradeoffs never involved tolerance to damage. Thus, when drought tolerance is manifest as slow inherent growth rates, plants may also have relatively high defense levels, especially in stressful environments. Otherwise, defenses may be compromised by drought-coping mechanisms, although plastic switches to less costly defenses may alleviate constraints in stressful environments.