The response of soybean seeds to the stresses of semi-arid environments during germination and early seedling growth
Reduced water availability and salinity are two major environmental factors influencing crop establishment in semi-arid environments. Therefore the effect of reduced water availability using polyethylene glycol (PEG) 4000 solutions and of salinity (NaCl) on the germination of six soybean cultivars was examined. Cultivars differed in their response to reduced water availability and salinity and in their ability to recover from the stresses. A large increase in germination during a recovery period at 0 MPa following water stress suggested that PEG was not toxic whilst the failure of seeds to recover from high salinity revealed the toxic effects of NaCl. At the same water potential, germination in saline conditions was higher than that in PEG and the rate of water uptake by individual seeds was more rapid in NaCl solutions than in PEG. The most plausible explanation for the greater water uptake and germination in NaCl is that seeds accumulated salts which lowered their osmotic potential. The effects of NaCl on seedling growth were much greater when experiments were conducted in a hydroponic system compared with a paper towel method. However, analysis of the solutions soaking the paper towels revealed that 4.25 mMolal Ca2+ was available to the seeds in this system in saline conditions. This may have reduced Na+ uptake or provided a protective effect against Na+ toxicity. Germination (40%) was possible at a tissue Na+ concentration in the embryonic axis of 9.3mg g-1 FW whilst seedling growth was completely inhibited at a tissue Na+ concentration of 6.1 mg g-1 FW. Germination at higher tissue Na+ concentrations was associated with higher K++Ca2+ concentrations, suggesting that these ions may protect the seeds in the pregermination phase against salinity. A reduction in seed vigour due to ageing resulted in reduced germination under saline conditions compared to the germination of unaged seeds, but there was no significant interaction between salinity and seed ageing. However, unaged seeds showed a greater increase in germination after transfer to 0 MPa than did the aged seeds. Since both the site of ageing and the toxic effect of NaCl is the cell membrane, there may be additive effects of NaCl toxicity on cell membrane in aged seeds.