Linking Dynamic Phenotyping with Metabolite Analysis to Study Natural Variation in Drought Responses of Brachypodium distachyon

Drought is an important environmental stress limiting the productivity of major crops worldwide. Understanding drought tolerance and possible mechanisms for improving drought resistance is therefore a prerequisite to develop drought-tolerant crops that produce significant yields with reduced amounts of water. Brachypodium distachyon (Brachypodium) is a key model species for cereals, forage grasses, and energy grasses. In this study, initial screening of a Brachypodium germplasm collection consisting of 138 different ecotypes exposed to progressive drought, highlighted the natural variation in morphology, biomass accumulation, and responses to drought stress. A core set of ten ecotypes, classified as being either tolerant, susceptible or intermediate, in response to drought stress, were exposed to mild or severe (respectively, 15 and 0% soil water content) drought stress and phenomic parameters linked to growth and color changes were assessed. When exposed to severe drought stress, phenotypic data and metabolite profiling combined with multivariate analysis revealed a remarkable consistency in separating the selected ecotypes into their different pre-defined drought tolerance groups. Increases in several metabolites, including for the phytohormones jasmonic acid and salicylic acid, and TCA-cycle intermediates, were positively correlated with biomass yield and with reduced yellow pixel counts; suggestive of delayed senescence, both key target traits for crop improvement to drought stress. While metabolite analysis also separated ecotypes into the distinct tolerance groupings after exposure to mild drought stress, similar analysis of the phenotypic data failed to do so, confirming the value of metabolomics to investigate early responses to drought stress. The results highlight the potential of combining the analyses of phenotypic and metabolic responses to identify key mechanisms and markers associated with drought tolerance in both the Brachypodium model plant as well as agronomically important crops.