BACKGROUNDThellungiella salsuginea is an important model plant due to its natural tolerance to abiotic stresses including salt, cold, and water deficits. Microarray and metabolite profiling have shown that Thellungiella undergoes stress-responsive changes in transcript and organic solute abundance when grown under controlled environmental conditions. However, few reports assess the capacity of plants to display stress-responsive traits in natural habitats where concurrent stresses are the norm.RESULTSTo determine whether stress-responsive changes observed in cabinet-grown plants are recapitulated in the field, we analyzed leaf transcript and metabolic profiles of Thellungiella growing in its native Yukon habitat during two years of contrasting meteorological conditions. We found 673 genes showing differential expression between field and unstressed, chamber-grown plants. There were comparatively few overlaps between genes expressed under field and cabinet treatment-specific conditions. Only 20 of 99 drought-responsive genes were expressed both in the field during a year of low precipitation and in plants subjected to drought treatments in cabinets. There was also a general pattern of lower abundance among metabolites found in field plants relative to control or stress-treated plants in growth cabinets. Nutrient availability may explain some of the observed differences. For example, proline accumulated to high levels in cold and salt-stressed cabinet-grown plants but proline content was, by comparison, negligible in plants at a saline Yukon field site. We show that proline accumulated in a stress-responsive manner in Thellungiella plants salinized in growth cabinets and in salt-stressed seedlings when nitrogen was provided at 1.0 mM. In seedlings grown on 0.1 mM nitrogen medium, the proline content was low while carbohydrates increased. The relatively higher content of sugar-like compounds in field plants and seedlings on low nitrogen media suggests that Thellungiella shows metabolic plasticity in response to environmental stress and that resource availability can influence the expression of stress tolerance traits under field conditions.CONCLUSIONComparisons between Thellungiella plants responding to stress in cabinets and in their natural habitats showed differences but also overlap between transcript and metabolite profiles. The traits in common offer potential targets for improving crops that must respond appropriately to multiple, concurrent stresses.