Sandbur drought tolerance reflects phenotypic plasticity based on the accumulation of sugars, lipids, and flavonoid intermediates and the scavenging of reactive oxygen species in the root.
The perennial grass Cenchrus spinifex (common sandbur) is an invasive species that grows in arid and semi-arid regions due to its remarkable phenotypic plasticity, which confers the ability to withstand drought and other forms of abiotic stress. Exploring the molecular mechanisms of drought tolerance in common sandbur could lead to the development of new strategies for the protection of natural and agricultural environments from this weed. To determine the molecular basis of drought tolerance in C. spinifex, we used isobaric tags for relative and absolute quantitation (iTRAQ) to identify proteins differing in abundance between roots growing in normal soil and roots subjected to moderate or severe drought stress. The analysis of these proteins revealed that drought tolerance in C. spinifex primarily reflects the modulation of core physiological activities such as protein synthesis, transport and energy utilization as well as the accumulation of flavonoid intermediates and the scavenging of reactive oxygen species. Accordingly, plants subjected to drought stress accumulated sucrose, fatty acids, and ascorbate, shifted their redox potential (as determined by the NADH/NAD ratio), accumulated flavonoid intermediates at the expense of anthocyanins and lignin, and produced less actin, indicating fundamental reorganization of the cytoskeleton. Our results show that C. spinifex responds to drought stress by coordinating multiple metabolic pathways along with other adaptations. It is likely that the underlying metabolic plasticity of this species plays a key role in its invasive success, particularly in semi-arid and arid environments.