Spatial distribution of xylem embolisms in the stems of Pinus thunbergii at the threshold of fatal drought stress

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Abstract

Although previous studies have suggested that branch dieback and whole-plant death due to drought stress occur at 50–88% loss of stem hydraulic conductivity (P50 and P88, respectively), the dynamics of catastrophic failure in the water-conducting pathways in whole plants subjected to drought remain poorly understood. We examined the dynamics of drought stress tolerance in 3-year-old Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii Parl.). We nondestructively monitored (i) the spatial distribution of drought-induced embolisms in the stem at greater than P50 and (ii) recovery from embolisms following rehydration. Stem water distributions were visualized by cryo-scanning electron microscopy. The percentages of both embolized area and loss of hydraulic conductivity showed similar patterns of increase, although the water loss in xylem increased markedly at –5.0 MPa or less. One seedling that had reached 72% loss of the water-conducting area survived and the xylem water potential recovered to –0.3 MPa. We concluded that Japanese black pines may need to maintain water-filled tracheids within earlywood of the current-year xylem under natural conditions to avoid disconnection of water movement between the stem and the tops of branches. It is necessary to determine the spatial distribution of embolisms around the point of the lethal threshold to gain an improved understanding of plant survival under conditions of drought.

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