Zn Supplementation Mitigates Drought Effects on Cotton by Improving Photosynthetic Performance and Antioxidant Defense Mechanisms
Drought is recognized as a paramount threat to sustainable agricultural productivity. This threat has grown more severe in the age of global climate change. As a result, finding a long-term solution to increase plants’ tolerance to drought stress has been a key research focus. Applications of chemicals such as zinc (Zn) may provide a simpler, less time-consuming, and effective technique for boosting the plant’s resilience to drought. The present study gathers persuasive evidence on the potential roles of zinc sulphate (ZnSO4·7H2O; 1.0 g Kg−1 soil) and zinc oxide (ZnO; 1.0 g Kg−1 soil) in promoting tolerance of cotton plants exposed to drought at the first square stage, by exploring various physiological, morphological, and biochemical features. Soil supplementation of ZnSO4 or ZnO to cotton plants improved their shoot biomass, root dry weight, leaf area, photosynthetic performance, and water-use efficiency under drought stress. Zn application further reduced the drought-induced accumulations of H2O2 and malondialdehyde, and electrolyte leakage in stressed plants. Antioxidant assays revealed that Zn supplements, particularly ZnSO4, reduced reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulation by increasing the activities of a range of ROS quenchers, such as catalase, ascorbate peroxidase, glutathione S-transferase, and guaiacol peroxidase, to protect the plants against ROS-induced oxidative damage during drought stress. Increased leaf relative water contents along with increased water-soluble protein contents may indicate the role of Zn in improving the plant’s water status under water-deficient conditions. The results of the current study also suggested that, in general, ZnSO4 supplementation more effectively increased cotton drought tolerance than ZnO supplementation, thereby suggesting ZnSO4 as a potential chemical to curtail drought-induced detrimental effects in water-limited soil conditions.