Can biochemical traits bridge the gap between genomics and plant performance? A study in rice under drought
The possibility of introducing metabolic/biochemical phenotyping to complement genomics-based predictions in breeding pipelines has been considered for years. Here we examine to what extent and under what environmental conditions metabolic/biochemical traits can effectively contribute to understanding and predicting plant performance. In this study, multivariable statistical models based on flag leaf central metabolism and oxidative stress status were used to predict grain yield performance for 271 indica rice (Oryza sativa) accessions grown in the field under well-watered and reproductive stage drought conditions. The resulting models displayed significantly higher predictability than multivariable models based on genomic data for the prediction of grain yield under drought (Q2 = 0.54-0.56 versus 0.35) and for stress-induced grain yield loss (Q2 = 0.59-0.64 versus 0.03-0.06). Models based on the combined datasets showed predictabilities similar to metabolic/biochemical-based models alone. In contrast to genetic markers, models with enzyme activities and metabolite values also quantitatively integrated the effect of physiological differences such as plant height on grain yield. The models highlighted antioxidant enzymes of the ascorbate-glutathione cycle and a lipid oxidation stress marker as important predictors of rice grain yield stability under drought at the reproductive stage, and these stress-related variables were more predictive than leaf central metabolites. These findings provide evidence that metabolic/biochemical traits can integrate dynamic cellular and physiological responses to the environment and can help bridge the gap between the genome and the phenome of crops as predictors of grain yield performance under drought.