Frontiers in Plant Science 12 , 747225 ( 2021)
Renewable fuels are needed to replace fossil fuels in the immediate future. Lignocellulosic bioenergy crops provide a renewable alternative that sequesters atmospheric carbon. To prevent displacement of food crops, it would be advantageous to grow biofuel crops on marginal lands. These lands will likely face more frequent and extreme drought conditions than conventional agricultural land, so it is crucial to see how proposed bioenergy crops fare under these conditions and how that may affect lignocellulosic biomass composition and saccharification properties. We found that while drought impacts the plant cell wall of Sorghum bicolor differently according to tissue and timing of drought induction, drought-induced cell wall compositional modifications are relatively minor and produce no negative effect on biomass conversion. This contrasts with the cell wall-related transcriptome, which had a varied range of highly variable genes (HVGs) within four cell wall-related GO categories, depending on the tissues surveyed and time of drought induction. Further, many HVGs had expression changes in which putative impacts were not seen in the physical cell wall or which were in opposition to their putative impacts. Interestingly, most pre-flowering drought-induced cell wall changes occurred in the leaf, with matrix and lignin compositional changes that did not persist after recovery from drought. Most measurable physical post-flowering cell wall changes occurred in the root, affecting mainly polysaccharide composition and cross-linking. This study couples transcriptomics to cell wall chemical analyses of a C4 grass experiencing progressive and differing drought stresses in the field. As such, we can analyze the cell wall-specific response to agriculturally relevant drought stresses on the transcriptomic level and see whether those changes translate to compositional or biomass conversion differences. Our results bolster the conclusion that drought stress does not substantially affect the cell wall composition of specific aerial and subterranean biomass nor impede enzymatic hydrolysis of leaf biomass, a positive result for biorefinery processes. Coupled with previously reported results on the root microbiome and rhizosphere and whole transcriptome analyses of this study, we can formulate and test hypotheses on individual gene candidates’ function in mediating drought stress in the grass cell wall, as demonstrated in sorghum.