Drought and salt stress are major abiotic constraints affecting plant growth worldwide. Under these conditions, the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) is a common phenomenon taking place mainly in chloroplasts, peroxisomes, mitochondria and apoplasts, especially when associated with high light stress. ROS are harmful because of their high reactivity to cell components, thereby leading to cytotoxicity and cell death. During the Ordovician and early Devonian period, photosynthetic organisms colonized terrestrial habitats, and the acquisition of desiccation tolerance has been a major component of their evolution. We have studied the capacity for acclimation to drought and salt stress of the moss Physcomitrella patens, a representative of the early land colonization stage. Exposure to high concentrations of NaCl and sorbitol strongly affects chloroplast development, the Chl content and the thylakoid protein composition in this moss. Under sublethal conditions (0.2 M NaCl and 0.4 M sorbitol), the photosynthetic apparatus of P. patens responds to oxidative stress by increasing non-photochemical quenching (NPQ). Surprisingly, the accumulation of PSBS and LHCSR, the two polypeptides essential for NPQ in P. patens, was not up-regulated in these conditions. Rather, an increased NPQ amplitude correlated with the overaccumulation of zeaxanthin and the presence of the enzyme violaxanthin de-epoxidase. These results suggest that the regulation of excess energy dissipation through control of PSBS and LHCSR is mainly driven by light conditions, while osmotic and salt stress act through acclimative regulation of the xanthophyll cycle. We conclude that regulation of the xanthophyll cycle is an important anticipatory strategy against photoinhibition by high light.
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