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Photosynthetic capacity and assimilate transport of the lower canopy influence maize yield under high planting density

Yanyan Yan,Fengying Duan,Xia Li,Rulang Zhao,Peng Hou,Ming Zhao,Shaokun Li,Yonghong Wang,Tingbo Dai,Wenbin Zhou

Plant Physiology  2024;IF 7.4


Photosynthesis is a major trait of interest for development of high-yield crop plants. However, little is known about the effects of high-density planting on photosynthetic responses at the whole-canopy level. Using the high-yielding maize (Zea mays L.) cultivars ‘LY66’, ‘MC670’, and ‘JK968’, we here conducted a two-year field experiment to assess ear development in addition to leaf characteristics and photosynthetic parameters in each canopy layer at four planting densities. Increased planting density promoted high grain yield and population-scale biomass accumulation despite reduced per-plant productivity. MC670 had the strongest adaptability to high-density planting conditions. Physiological analysis showed that increased planting density primarily led to decreases in the single-leaf area above the ear for LY66 and MC670 and below the ear for JK968. Furthermore, high planting density decreased chlorophyll content and the photosynthetic rate due to decreased canopy transmission, leading to severe decreases in single-plant biomass accumulation in the lower canopy. Moreover, increased planting density improved pre-silking biomass transfer, especially in the lower canopy. Yield showed significant positive relationships with photosynthesis and biomass in the lower canopy, demonstrating the important contributions of these leaves to grain yield under dense planting conditions. Increased planting density led to retarded ear development as a consequence of reduced glucose and fructose contents in the ears, indicating reductions in sugar transport that were associated with limited sink organ development, reduced kernel number, and yield loss. Overall, these findings highlighted the photosynthetic capacities of the lower canopy as promising targets for improving maize yield under dense planting conditions.