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Brazilian Journal of Plant Physiology

On-line version ISSN 1677-9452

Braz. J. Plant Physiol. vol.24 no.1 Campos dos Goytacazes  2012 



Supplemental Ca2+ does not improve growth but it affects nutrient uptake in NaCl-stressed cowpea plants



Francisco Valderez Augusto GuimarãesI; Claudivan Feitosa de LacerdaII; Elton Camelo MarquesIII, Carlos Eduardo Braga de AbreuIII; Boanerges Freire de AquinoIV; José Tarquinio PriscoIII, Enéas Gomes-FilhoIII, *

IFundação Cearense de Meteorologia e Recursos Hídricos, Fortaleza, CE, Brasil
IIDepartamento de Engenharia Agrícola, Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia em Salinidade (INCTSal/CNPq), Universidade Federal do Ceará, Fortaleza, CE, Brasil
IIIDepartamento de Bioquímica e Biologia Molecular, Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia em Salinidade (INCTSal/CNPq), Universidade Federal do Ceará, Fortaleza, CE, Brasil
IVDepartamento de Ciências do Solo, Universidade Federal do Ceará, Fortaleza, CE, Brasil




The growth and nutrient assimilation was evaluated in CaCl2- and CaSO4-supplemented cowpea plants subjected to salt stress (75 mM NaCl). The salinity significantly reduced the cowpea vegetative growth. The addition of CaCl2 in the growth medium did not significantly affect plant growth, while for the CaSO4, the beneficial effects of Ca2+ were moderate. Salinity increased the Na+, K+, Cl-, N and P content in the plants, however it decreased the content of Ca2+ and Mg2+. Increases in Ca2+ concentration in the nutrient solution caused decreases in the Na+ and Mg2+ contents and increases in Ca2+, K+, P, and Cl- contents. The supplemental Ca2+ may alleviate the Na+ toxicity and may improve nutritional and ionic balance in cowpea, but it cannot overcome the osmotic effects associated with the increased total salt concentration.

Keywords: calcium, mineral nutrition, salinity, Vigna unguiculata




Soil salinity is one of the most important abiotic stresses limiting crop productivity worldwide (Hasegawa et al., 2000). The plant growth inhibition under saline conditions is due, in part, to both osmotic and ionic components, which may cause water deficit, ion toxicity, and nutritional unbalance (Hasegawa et al., 2000; Munns and Tester, 2008).

Salinity effects on plant mineral nutrition are associated with the salts predominating in the growth medium (Alam, 1999). Thus, excess Na+ and Cl- in the soil solution, and occasional excess SO42- may lead to deficiencies in the essential nutrients (Sairam and Tyagi, 2004). In general, excess Na+ may induce both K+ and Ca2+ deficiencies, while NO3- uptake may be inhibited by Cl- (Grattan and Grieve, 1999).

Calcium is an essential nutrient for the growth and development of plants and it plays a fundamental role as a second messenger in many signal transduction pathways within the cell (Marschner, 1995; Kim et al., 2009). In addition, Ca2+ helps maintaining the integrity and structure of the membranes and cell wall, and its displacement by Na+ may occur in saline conditions, leading to altered plasma membrane integrity and to the leakage of intracellular solutes (Rengel, 1992).

According to Epstein (1998), the adverse effects of salinity on plants might be alleviated by the addition of supplemental Ca2+ in the growth medium. This is due, in part, to the ability of Ca2+ in decreasing the influx of Na+ and the efflux of K+ through the inhibition of non-selective cations and outward rectifying K+ channels, respectively (Demidchick and Tester, 2002; Shabala et al., 2006). In addition, Ca2+ appears to alter root lipid composition (Cachorro et al., 1993) and to induce organic solute accumulation, such as proline and glycinebetaine (Girija et al., 2002) in salt-stressed plants.

Although an adequate supply of Ca2+ may reduce Na+ content in tissues and improve plant growth under salt stress (Kaya et al., 2002; Dabuxilatu and Ikeda, 2005), there was no beneficial effect of Ca2+ when cowpea was grown in nutritive solutions supplemented with CaCl2 (Silva et al., 2003). In order to clarify this issue, we have tested the hypothesis that the responses of cowpea to supplemental Ca2+ depend on the source of Ca2+ and/or the concentration in the growth medium. Furthermore, there is little information about the uptake and distribution of nutrients in cowpea under NaCl salinity (Sousa et al., 2007; Neves et al., 2009), and no studies conducted to date have examined the effects of supplemental Ca2+ on nutrient content in this species. The present study was undertaken to evaluate the effects of increasing CaCl2 and CaSO4 concentrations on growth and nutrient assimilation in NaCl-stressed cowpea plants.



Plant material and growth conditions: Cowpea seeds [Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.], cultivar Pitiúba, were selected according to their size and shape, and their surface was sterilized with a 2% sodium hypochlorite solution for ten minutes. Afterwards, the seeds were rinsed in distilled water and sown in plastic cups containing vermiculite moistened with distilled water. On the fifth day after sowing, uniform-sized seedlings were transplanted into trays containing half-strength Hoagland's nutrient solution, and they were acclimated for four days.

On the ninth day after sowing, the seedlings were transplanted into pots (one plant per pot) containing 3 L of half-strength Hoagland's nutrient solution and were subjected to Ca2+ treatments: CaCl2 or CaSO4 were added to the nutrient solution at concentrations of 0.5, 1.25, 2.5, 5.0, 7.5, and 10.0 mM. Twenty-four hours after these calcium salts were added, the plants were subjected to salt stress, which was applied at a rate of 25 mmol L-1 every 48 hours, until the final concentration (75 mM) was reached.

NaCl was gradually added in an attempt to avoid osmotic shock. For the control treatment, a set of plants received only the half-strength Hoagland's nutrient solution containing 2 mM Ca(NO3)2. In the nutrient solutions supplemented with calcium salts, NaNO3 was used as a source of nitrate to replace Ca(NO3)2. All nutrient solutions were kept aerated and were replaced every six days. Each day, the amount of water transpired was replaced with distilled water. The pH of the solution was daily measured and was adjusted to 5.5, as required, using HCl or NaOH. This was necessary to assure the solubility of CaSO4, particularly at concentrations above 5.0 mM. The experiment was carried out in greenhouse conditions, with mean air temperatures of 32.5±4.5°C (day) and 25.5±4.5°C (night), a relative humidity of 40 to 80% and a mean maximum photosynthetic photon flux density of approximately 1,200 µmol m-2 s-1.

Growth measurements and mineral analyses: Plants were harvested 24 days after the first addition of NaCl and they were separated into leaves, stems + petioles, and roots. Plant materials were dried in a forced-air oven at 60°C for 72 hours, and then the dry mass of the samples was recorded.

The extraction of Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, K+, P, and S from the plant tissue material was performed by digestion of 0.5 g powder of the oven-dried samples in a mixture of concentrated nitric acid and perchloric acid (2:1; v/v; Malavolta et al., 1997). The Ca2+ and Mg2+ contents were determined by atomic absorption spectrophotometry, while the Na+ and K+ contents were determined by flame photometry. The P and S contents were estimated by colorimetric and turbidimetric methods, respectively (Malavolta et al., 1997). Total nitrogen extraction was based on the micro-Kjeldahl method, and the N content was determined according to Malavolta et al. (1997). Aqueous extracts were used for Cl- determination by titration with AgNO3 (Malavolta et al., 1997).

Statistics: The experimental design was entirely randomized and arranged as a factorial design (2 × 6 + 1), consisting of six saline treatments supplemented with CaCl2 and six other ones supplemented with CaSO4, plus a control treatment of half-strength Hoagland's nutrient solution. The experiment was conducted with five replications and a total of 65 pots (experimental units). All data were subjected to analysis of variance (ANOVA) using the F test, and the effects of Ca2+ concentration were assessed using the regression analysis. Dunnett's test was used to compare the differences between the control and the other treatments. Comparisons with p-values0.05 were considered to be significantly different. Statistical data analyses and graphics were made with SigmaPlot for Windows, version 11.0.



Growth: The cowpea plant growth was dramatically reduced (p0.001) by salt stress (NaCl at 75 mM) in both CaCl2- and CaSO4-supplemented plants (Figure 1). Increases in the concentration of CaCl2 in the growth medium did not affect the leaf area (LA) and shoot dry mass (SDM), as seen in Figure 1. On the other hand, the plants supplemented with CaSO4 showed a trend of increased LA and SDM (Figure 1). The root dry matter (RDM) was reduced by 68.3% after exposure to 75 mM NaCl, and there was no significant interaction (p=0.280) between the Ca2+ source and concentration, when the RDM was analyzed (Figure 1).



Na+ and Cl- accumulation: Salinity favored the accumulation of Na+ in all cowpea tissues (Figure 2). The increasing CaCl2 and CaSO4 concentrations in the growth medium, however, significantly reduced the Na+ content in cowpea plants (Figure 2). The Cl- content in all analyzed plant parts increased with salinity, and this increase depended on the interaction between the Ca2+ source and concentration (Figure 2). It should be noted that regardless the plant part, the increasing CaCl2 concentration in the growth medium gradually increased the Cl- content of the plants. In the leaves and roots, the changes in the Cl- content of CaSO4-supplemented plants depended on the Ca2+ concentration in the growth medium, whereas in the stems + petioles, the Cl- content did not change with increased Ca2+ concentration (Figure 2).

Macronutrient accumulation: The Ca2+ content of cowpea plants was significantly (p0.001) reduced by salinity, primarily in the leaves. As expected, the CaCl2 and CaSO4 supplementation increased the Ca2+ content in all plant tissues, resulting in values that were equal to or greater than those observed in control plants (Figure 3).

In general, the K+ content was higher in salt-stressed plants in comparison to control plants (Figure 3). In leaves and stems + petioles, this increase occurred regardless the Ca2+ source, but only the K+ content in the stems + petioles was influenced by the Ca2+ concentration (Figure 3). The root K+ content in both plants supplemented with CaCl2 and CaSO4 increased linearly in response to increased Ca2+ concentration in the growth medium (Figure 3).

Salt stress increased (p0.001) the N content in leaves and stems + petioles of cowpea plants by 17.1 and 51.2%, respectively (Figure 4). Such increase occurred regardless the Ca2+ concentration and source in the growth medium. There was no significant change in the root N content of CaSO4-supplemented plants (Figure 4). However, when CaCl2 was used as the Ca2+ source, the root N content decreased linearly as the Ca2+ concentration in the growth medium increased (Figure 4).

The P content increased (p0.001) in different parts of the salt-stressed plants and was affected by both the Ca2+ source and concentration in the growth medium, except in the stem + petioles, in which no significant (p=0.428) interaction between these factors was found (Figure 4). Moreover, plant exposure to increasing Ca2+ concentration caused a linear increase in the P content in the leaves of CaSO4-supplemented plants and in the roots of CaCl2-supplemented ones, respectively (Figure 4).

The Mg2+ content in leaves and roots was significantly (p0.001) reduced by salinity (Figure 5). However, unlike the trend observed for the Ca2+ content, the increasing CaCl2 or CaSO4 concentrations in the saline medium further reduced the Mg2+ content in these plant tissues. In the stems + petioles, the Mg2+ content was higher in the salt-stressed plants supplemented with a low Ca2+ concentration (especially when Ca2+ was provided as CaCl2), while the Mg2+ content presented no significant differences between high Ca2+ treatments and control treatment (Figure 5).

Effects of salinity and Ca2+ on the S content depended on the plant part that was being analyzed (Figure 5). In leaves and roots, there was a significant (p0.001) interaction between the Ca2+ source and concentration, and the S content in the CaSO4-supplemented plants was higher than that observed in the CaCl2-supplemented ones (Figure 5). The root S content was reduced by salinity (Figure 5); however, neither salinity nor Ca2+ significantly affected the S content in the stems + petioles of cowpea plants (Figure 5).



Many interacting environmental variables contribute to salt tolerance/susceptibility in plants, including salt type and concentration, as well as developmental stage and cultivar. In previous papers, Pitiúba was considered a salt-tolerant cultivar (Costa et al., 2003; Maia et al., 2010). However, the results of the present study showed that a large proportion of the plant growth was inhibited by NaCl salinity, and only supplementation with CaSO4 could counteract this inhibition (Figure 1). However, the magnitude of this beneficial effect was very moderate.

For most plant species, supplemental Ca2+ can reverse the adverse effects of salinity on growth and membrane permeability (Ebert et al., 2002; Kaya et al., 2002; Lacerda et al., 2004; Dabuxilatu and Ikeda, 2005; Onami and Hammes, 2006; Tuna et al., 2007). In general, the Ca2+ concentration that yields maximal growth under saline conditions varies between 5 and 10 mM, though important differences in the responses to supplemental Ca2+ between species and cultivars have been observed (Cramer, 2002). Our results confirmed that the growth of salt-stressed cowpea plants does not respond to supplemental Ca2+, a finding which is supported by other studies in which supplemental Ca2+ did not alleviate (Schmidt et al., 1993; Cabot et al., 2009; Kwon et al., 2009), and, in some cases, even intensified (Silva et al., 2003), the effects of salinity on plants. According to Reid and Smith (2000), the restricted ability of Ca2+ to improve plant growth under saline conditions appears to be related to salinity-induced osmotic stress, which cannot be overcome by supplemental Ca2+. Moreover, in the leaves and roots of salt-stressed cowpea plants, NaCl resulted in serious damage to membrane structures, and Ca2+ supplementation could not reduce this damage, therefore the limited response of cowpea plants to Ca2+ was also detectable at the cellular level (Guimarães et al., 2011).

Unlike plant growth, supplemental Ca2+ affected mineral nutrient uptake and distribution in salt-stressed cowpea plants. The addition of 75 mM NaCl to the growth medium significantly increased the Na+ and Cl- content in all cowpea tissues (Figure 2). As might be expected, supplemental Ca2+ reversed the increased Na+ content in cowpea plants. In addition, Ca2+ reduced the Na+ translocation to the shoot and retained this ion in the roots. Nevertheless, this was not enough to alleviate the effects of NaCl on plant growth (Figure 1). The reduced Na+ content is considered the primary beneficial effect of Ca2+ on plants growing under NaCl stress (Rengel, 1992; Girija et al., 2002; Kaya et al., 2002). Apparently, in this species, the beneficial effects of Ca2+ on Na+ toxicity reduction were surpassed by the osmotic effects, which were associated with the increase in total salt concentration (Silva et al., 2003). Surprisingly, in the roots, the CaCl2 supplemented plants accumulated less Cl- than the CaSO4-supplemented ones (Figure 2). This was likely due to an increase in the transport rate of Cl- from roots to shoot, which consequently led to higher Cl- accumulation in the leaves and stems + petioles in these plants.

Supplemental Ca2+ provided as either CaCl2 or CaSO4 increased the Ca2+ content in cowpea plant tissues. In both Ca2+ supplementations, the Ca2+ content in the roots was much lower than that in the shoot (Figure 3). This phenomenon can be explained by the influx and translocation of Ca2+ to the shoot and its efflux through the root cells (Rengel, 1992). Maintaining an adequate supply of Ca2+ in saline soil solutions is an important factor to control the severity of specific ion toxicities (Grattan and Grieve, 1999).

Under saline conditions, high levels of external Na+ not only interfere with K+ acquisition by the roots, but may also disrupt the integrity of root membranes and alter their selectivity (Grattan and Grieve, 1999). In the present paper, there were increases in the K+ content in salt-stressed cowpea regardless the Ca2+ source (Figure 3). This response, however, might simply be a consequence of reduced plant growth in saline conditions, and it is apparently unrelated to salt tolerance (Lacerda et al., 2004). Recently, Shabala et al. (2006) provided evidence for an additional mechanism of Ca2+ action on salt toxicity in plants: the inhibition of Na+-induced K+ efflux through outwardly directed, K+- ermeable channels. In cowpea plants, it is likely that this alleviant effect of Ca2+ is responsible for increases in the K+ content in the stems + petioles and roots, resulting from increased Ca2+ concentrations.

Frequently, when plants are exposed to NaCl, there is a decrease in the N content due to accumulation of Cl- and competition of Cl- with NO3- (Grattan and Grieve, 1998; Alam, 1999). In this experiment, the N content was higher in salt-stressed plants regardless the Ca2+ source in the growth medium (Figure 4). Increased N content in response to salinity was observed in other studies (Patel and Pandey, 2008; Keutgen and Pawelzik, 2009). However, as the nutrient contents were expressed in terms of dry mass, these increases in N content under saline stress could simply be a consequence of reduced plant growth (the concentration effect).

The influence of salinity on P accumulation in crop plants is variable and depends on the plant and on the experimental conditions (Grattan and Grieve, 1999; Alam, 1999). In cowpea plants, salinity favored P accumulation, which is in agreement with results previously obtained by Silva et al. (2003). In plants, there is an increase in the uptake and accumulation of P as its availability in the growth medium increases (Navarro et al., 2001), a condition that likely does not occur in plants growing in the field. Besides, little is known about the Ca2+ effects on P uptake and accumulation in salt-stressed plants. Regardless the concentration effect, the CaCl2-supplemented plants had a higher P content in leaves and roots (over 5 mM Ca2+) in comparison to CaSO4-supplemented plants (Figure 4). Martinez and Läuchli (1991) observed an increase in the P translocation from roots to shoot, when cotton plants were subjected to 150 mM NaCl plus 10 mM CaCl2, but it was not possible to determine whether this effect was due to increased P transport to leaves or to an indirect effect of Ca2+. Similarly, no consistent relationship could be established between the supplemental Ca2+ and P accumulation in cowpea.

The reduction in the Mg2+ content of cowpea plants, mainly in the roots, occurred at high CaCl2 or CaSO4 concentrations (Figure 5). This effect was likely caused by competitive inhibition between Ca2+ and Mg2+, since binding sites on the root plasma membrane appear to have a lower affinity for the highly hydrated Mg2+ than for Ca2+ (Marschner, 1995). In addition, a higher Mg2+ translocation from the roots to the shoot appeared to be detrimental to the Mg2+ accumulation in the root.

Little attention has been given to the salinity effects on the uptake and accumulation of S in plants (Grattan and Grieve, 1999). In the present paper, the S content was mainly dictated by the counter ion of Ca2+ salts used in this experiment (Figure 5). The highest S content in leaves and roots of CaSO4-supplemented plants was likely due to an increased SO42- concentration in the growth medium. On the other hand, the reduced leaf S content observed at Ca2+ concentrations of greater than 5.0 mM was likely due to S losses through the leaf stomata in the form of SO2 (Marschner, 1995).

In conclusion, salinity significantly reduced plant growth and affected the uptake and distribution of nutrients in cowpea plants. Although the CaSO4-supplemented plants have shown a trend towards increased LA and shoot, the addition of Ca2+ in the growth medium as either CaCl2 or CaSO4 did not improve plant growth. These findings confirm that cowpea growth is not responsive to supplemental Ca2+.

In general, the NaCl-induced changes on nutrient content depended on the Ca2+ source and/or concentration. The increased Ca2+ concentration partially restored the Na+/Ca2+ balance, reducing Na+ concentrations and increasing Ca2+ ones in shoot and roots regardless of the Ca2+ source, but this effect was insufficient to alleviate the effects of NaCl on plant growth. Based on these observations and on the findings of previous studies, we concluded that supplemental Ca2+ can alleviate Na+ toxicity and can influence the mineral nutrient content in cowpea plants, but this effect is insufficient to overcome the osmotic effects associated with increased total salt concentration.


Acknowledgments: We are thankful for the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) and Fundação Cearense de Apoio ao Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (FUNCAP) for their financial support.



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Received: 16 February 2012
Accepted: 15 June 2012



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