PLoS One. 2023 Aug 18;18(8):e0288729. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0288729. eCollection 2023.
Varieties that tolerate low nitrogen (N) application rates can reduce fertilizer costs, minimize nitrate leaching and runoff losses, and lower overall CO2 emissions associated with fertilizer manufacturing. The goal of our research is to show the usefulness of path models to identify key phenotypic traits for screening plants with a tolerance to low N application rates. We grew tolerant and sensitive cultivars of poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) using a water-soluble fertilizer (15-5-15 Cal Mag) in both optimal (electrical conductivity of 2.5 dS·m-1) and N-deficient (electrical conductivity of 0.75 dS·m-1) treatments and measured 24 different traits at the cellular, leaf, and whole-plant scales in both cultivars and treatments. The experiment was laid out as a split-plot design with N treatments as main plots and cultivars as sub-plots, with five replications. Path analysis was conducted to develop sequential relationships among these traits. Statistical comparisons between tolerant and sensitive cultivars in the N-deficient treatment indicated an increase in shoot biomass (19.9 vs 14.4 g), leaf area (2775 vs 1824 cm2), leaf dry weight (14.7 vs 10.0 g), lateral root dry weight (3.7 vs 2.4 g), light-saturated photosynthesis (14.5 vs 10.1 μmol∙m-2∙s-1), maximum electron transport rate (119 vs 89 μmol∙m-2∙s-1), chlorophyll content (28.1 vs 12.9 g∙100g-1), leaf N content (27.5 vs 19.9 mg∙g-1), and fine root N content (26.1 vs 20.9 mg∙g-1), and a decrease in anthocyanin content (0.07 vs 0.16 ΔOD∙g-1). The path model indicated that an increase in the lateral root growth and fine root N content can lead to an increase in the leaf N content, in the N-deficient treatment. There were three separate paths that connected higher leaf N content to increased shoot biomass. These paths were mediated by the levels of anthocyanin, chlorophylls, and light-saturated photosynthesis rate (or rubisco capacity). The light-saturated photosynthesis model suggested that the increased uptake of N by fine roots in the tolerant cultivar was likely supported by the photosynthates translocated from the shoot to the root. Leaf N content was associated with multiple plant responses in the N-deficient treatment, and can be a useful screening trait for developing new cultivars, especially in marker-assisted molecular breeding.