Characterisation of dark chilling effects on the functional longevity of soybean root nodules
A large proportion of the world’s nitrogen needs is derived from symbiotic nitrogen fixation (SNF), which contributes substantially to agricultural sustainability. The partnership between legumes and rhizobia result in the formation of specialised structures called root nodules. Within these nodules SNF is supported by the sucrose transported from the leaves to the nodules for respiration. The end products of SNF in soybean (Glycine max (L.) Merr.) root nodules, namely ureides, are transported to the upper parts of the plant to supply nitrogen. Symbiotic nitrogen fixation provides a vital advantage for the production of soybean compared with most grain crops in that soybean fixes the nitrogen required for its growth and for the production of the high-protein content in seed and oil. The process of SNF is dramatically affected by drought, salt, cold and heavy metal stresses. Since SNF is such an important yield-determining factor, a lack in understanding these complexes inevitably delays progress towards the genetic improvement of soybean genotypes and also complicates decisions with regard to the suitability of certain genotypes for the various soybean producing areas in South Africa. The largest soybean producing areas in South Africa are situated at high altitudes, with minimum daily temperatures which can be critically low and impeding the production of soybean. Soybean is chilling sensitive, with growth, development and yield being affected negatively at temperatures below 15°C. Dark chilling (low night temperature) stress has proved to be one of the most important restraints to soybean production in South Africa. Among the symptoms documented in dark chilling sensitive soybean genotypes are reduced growth rates, loss of photosynthetic capacity and pigment content, as well as premature leaf senescence and severely inhibited SNF. Existing knowledge about stress-induced nodule senescence is based on fragmented information in the literature obtained in numerous, and often diverse, legume species. The precise nature and sequence of events participating in nodule senescence has not yet been fully explained. The main objectives of this investigation were to characterise the natural senescence process in soybean nodules under optimal growth conditions and to characterise the alteration of the key processes of SNF in a chilling sensitive soybean genotype during dark chilling. Moreover, to establish whether recovery in nodule functionality following a long term dark chilling period occured, or whether nodule senescence was triggered, and if sensitive biochemical markers of premature nodule senescence could be identified. A known chilling sensitive soybean genotype, PAN809, was grown under controlled growth conditions in a glasshouse. To determine the baseline and change over time for key parameters involved in SNF, a study was conducted under optimal growing conditions over a period of 6 weeks commencing 4 weeks after sowing. The cluster of crown nodules were monitored weekly and analysis included nitrogenase activity, ureide content, respiration rate, leghemoglobin content, sucrose synthase (SS) activity and sucrose content. Further investigations focused on induced dark chilling effects on nodule function to determine the alterations in key parameters of SNF. Plants were subjected to dark chilling (6˚C) for 12 consecutive nights and kept at normal day temperatures (26˚C). The induced dark chilling was either only shoot (SC) exposure or whole plant chilling (WPC). These treatments were selected since, in some areas in South Africa cold nights result not only in shoot chilling (SC) but also in low soil temperatures causing direct chilling of both roots and shoots. To determine if premature nodule senescence was triggered, the recovery following 12 consecutive nights of chilling treatment was monitored for another 4 weeks. It was established that the phase of optimum nitrogenase activity under optimal growing conditions occurred during 4 to 6 weeks after sowing where after a gradual decline commenced. This decline was associated with a decline in nitrogenase protein content and an increase in ureide content. The stability of SS activity and nodule respiration showed that carbon-dependent metabolic processes were stable for a longer period than previously mentioned parameters. The negative correlation that was observed between nitrogenase activity and nodule ureide content pointed towards the possible presence of a feedback inhibition trigger on nitrogenase activity. A direct effect of dark chilling on nitrogenase activity and nodule respiration rate led to a decline in nodule ureide content that occurred without any limitations on the carbon flux of the nodules (i.e. stable sucrose synthase activity and nodule sucrose content). The effect on SC plants was much less evident but did indicate that currently unknown shoot-derived factors could be involved in the minor inhibition of SNF. It was concluded that the repressed rates of respiration might have led to increased O2 concentrations in the nodule, thereby inhibiting the nitrogenase protein and so the production of ureides. It was found that long term chilling severely disrupted nitrogenase activity and ureide synthesis in nodules. Full recovery in all treatments occurred after 2 weeks of suspension of dark chilling, however, this only occurred when control nodules already commenced senescence. This points toward reversible activation of the nitrogenase protein with no evidence in support of premature nodule senescence. An increase in intercellular air space area was induced by long term dark chilling in nodules, specifically by the direct chilling of nodules (WPC treatment). The delayed diminishment of intercellular air space area back to control levels following dark chilling may be an important factor involved in the recovery of nitrogenase activity because enlarged air spaces would have favoured gaseous diffusion, and hence deactivation of nitrogenase, in an elevated O2 environment (due to supressed nodule respiration rates). These findings revealed that dark chilling did not close the diffusion barrier, as in the case of drought and other stress factors, but instead opened it due to an increase in air space areas in all regions of the nodule. In conclusion, this study established that dark chilling did not initiate premature nodule senescence and that SNF demonstrated resilience, with full recovery possible following even an extended dark chilling period involving low soil temperatures.