Heat tolerance in plants: An overview

A. Wahid, S. Gelani, M. Ashraf, M. R. Foolad

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2761 Scopus citations


Heat stress due to increased temperature is an agricultural problem in many areas in the world. Transitory or constantly high temperatures cause an array of morpho-anatomical, physiological and biochemical changes in plants, which affect plant growth and development and may lead to a drastic reduction in economic yield. The adverse effects of heat stress can be mitigated by developing crop plants with improved thermotolerance using various genetic approaches. For this purpose, however, a thorough understanding of physiological responses of plants to high temperature, mechanisms of heat tolerance and possible strategies for improving crop thermotolerance is imperative. Heat stress affects plant growth throughout its ontogeny, though heat-threshold level varies considerably at different developmental stages. For instance, during seed germination, high temperature may slow down or totally inhibit germination, depending on plant species and the intensity of the stress. At later stages, high temperature may adversely affect photosynthesis, respiration, water relations and membrane stability, and also modulate levels of hormones and primary and secondary metabolites. Furthermore, throughout plant ontogeny, enhanced expression of a variety of heat shock proteins, other stress-related proteins, and production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) constitute major plant responses to heat stress. In order to cope with heat stress, plants implement various mechanisms, including maintenance of membrane stability, scavenging of ROS, production of antioxidants, accumulation and adjustment of compatible solutes, induction of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) and calcium-dependent protein kinase (CDPK) cascades, and, most importantly, chaperone signaling and transcriptional activation. All these mechanisms, which are regulated at the molecular level, enable plants to thrive under heat stress. Based on a complete understanding of such mechanisms, potential genetic strategies to improve plant heat-stress tolerance include traditional and contemporary molecular breeding protocols and transgenic approaches. While there are a few examples of plants with improved heat tolerance through the use of traditional breeding protocols, the success of genetic transformation approach has been thus far limited. The latter is due to limited knowledge and availability of genes with known effects on plant heat-stress tolerance, though these may not be insurmountable in future. In addition to genetic approaches, crop heat tolerance can be enhanced by preconditioning of plants under different environmental stresses or exogenous application of osmoprotectants such as glycinebetaine and proline. Acquiring thermotolerance is an active process by which considerable amounts of plant resources are diverted to structural and functional maintenance to escape damages caused by heat stress. Although biochemical and molecular aspects of thermotolerance in plants are relatively well understood, further studies focused on phenotypic flexibility and assimilate partitioning under heat stress and factors modulating crop heat tolerance are imperative. Such studies combined with genetic approaches to identify and map genes (or QTLs) conferring thermotolerance will not only facilitate marker-assisted breeding for heat tolerance but also pave the way for cloning and characterization of underlying genetic factors which could be useful for engineering plants with improved heat tolerance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)199-223
Number of pages25
JournalEnvironmental and Experimental Botany
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Plant Science


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