Reduced availability of water for agricultural use has been forecast for much of the planet as a result of global warming and greater urban demand for water in large metropolitan areas. Strategic improvement of water use efficiency (WUE) and drought tolerance in perennial crops, like fruit trees, could reduce water use without compromising yield or quality. We studied water use in apple trees using 'Royal Gala', a relatively water use-efficient cultivar, as a standard. To examine whether genes useful for improving WUE are represented in a wild relative genetically close to M. ×domestica, we surveyed Malus sieversii for traits associated with WUE and drought resistance using material collected from xeric sites in Kazakhstan. This collection has been maintained in Geneva, NY, and surveyed for various phenotypes and has been genetically characterized using simple sequence repeats (SSRs). These data suggest that most of the diversity in this population is contained within a subpopulation of 34 individuals. Analysis of this subpopulation for morphological traits traditionally associated with WUE or drought resistance, e.g., leaf size and stomata size and arrangement, indicated that these traits were not substantially different. These results imply that some of the genetic diversity may be associated with changes in the biochemistry, uptake, and/or transport of water, carbon, or oxygen that have allowed these trees to survive in water-limited environments. Furthermore, genes responding to drought treatment were isolated from 'Royal Gala' and categorized according to the biological processes with which they are associated. A large fraction of upregulated genes from roots were identified as stress-responsive, whereas genes from leaves were for the most part associated with photosynthesis. We plan to examine expression of these genes in the M. sieversii population during water deficit in future studies to compare their patterns of expression with 'Royal Gala'.
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