Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a dominant C4 prairie grass that has wide distribution and several genetically distinct ecotypes. Many of the ecotypic adaptations are related to water availability in the native environment. Stomates facilitate photosynthetic gas exchange and regulate water loss from the plant. As such, stomatal size and density represent possible adaptations to conserve water. We hypothesized drought-tolerant ecotypes of big bluestem would have fewer or smaller stomates compared to more mesic ecotypes. Five ecotypes of big bluestem were planted in four common gardens from western Kansas to southern Illinois, USA to determine genetic and environmental influences on stomates. Leaves of all ecotypes of A. gerardii were largely hypostomatous and genetics was a greater influence than environment for stomatal size and density. The drought-tolerant Sand bluestem had larger stomates on abaxial surfaces of leaves, but a lower density compared to most other ecotypes. The most mesic Illinois ecotype and the Kaw cultivar had the greatest density of stomates on abaxial surfaces of leaves. Sand Bluestem had a greater density of stomates on adaxial surfaces of leaves compared to all other ecotypes. Gas exchange measures followed patterns of stomate distribution, where abaxial CO2 uptake rates were greater than adaxial CO2 uptake rates, although differences between leaf surfaces was more pronounced in stomatal density than in CO2 uptake. There were minor differences in size and density of stomates among sites that corresponded with precipitation, although these differences were minor, illustrating the genetic underpinnings of stomates in big bluestem. There is a genetic predisposition for drought-tolerant ecotypes to have fewer stomates, illustrating an evolutionary adaptation to drought tolerance in an important prairie species.

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Environmental and Experimental Botany


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