Frequency Versus Quantity: Phenotypic Response of Two Wheat Varieties to Water and Nitrogen Variability

Olivia H. Cousins, Trevor P. Garnett, Amanda Rasmussen, Sacha J. Mooney, Ronald J. Smernik, Chris J. Brien, Timothy R. Cavagnaro

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Due to climate change, water availability will become increasingly variable, affecting nitrogen (N) availability. Therefore, we hypothesised watering frequency would have a greater impact on plant growth than quantity, affecting N availability, uptake and carbon allocation. We used a gravimetric platform, which measures the unit of volume per unit of time, to control soil moisture and precisely compare the impact of quantity and frequency of water under variable N levels. Two wheat genotypes (Kukri and Gladius) were used in a factorial glasshouse pot experiment, each with three N application rates (25, 75 and 150 mg N kg−1 soil) and five soil moisture regimes (changing water frequency or quantity). Previously documented drought tolerance, but high N use efficiency, of Gladius as compared to Kukri provides for potentially different responses to N and soil moisture content. Water use, biomass and soil N were measured. Both cultivars showed potential to adapt to variable watering, producing higher specific root lengths under low N coupled with reduced water and reduced watering frequency (48 h watering intervals), or wet/dry cycling. This affected mineral N uptake, with less soil N remaining under constant watering × high moisture, or 48 h watering intervals × high moisture. Soil N availability affected carbon allocation, demonstrated by both cultivars producing longer, deeper roots under low N. Reduced watering frequency decreased biomass more than reduced quantity for both cultivars. Less frequent watering had a more negative effect on plant growth compared to decreasing the quantity of water. Water variability resulted in differences in C allocation, with changes to root thickness even when root biomass remained the same across N treatments. The preferences identified in wheat for water consistency highlights an undeveloped opportunity for identifying root and shoot traits that may improve plant adaptability to moderate to extreme resource limitation, whilst potentially encouraging less water and nitrogen use.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1631-1641
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Soil Science and Plant Nutrition
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomass allocation
  • Nitrogen use efficiency
  • Plant physiology
  • Triticum aestivum
  • Variable water
  • Water use efficiency


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