BackgroundWater deficiency is likely to become more frequent and intense as a result of global climate change, which may severely impact agricultural production in the world. The positive effects of melatonin (MEL) on alleviation drought or osmotic stress-induced water deficiency in plants has been well reported. However, the underlying mechanism of MEL on the detailed process of plant water uptake and transport under water deficiency condition remains largely unknown.ResultsApplication of 1 μM MEL led to enhanced tolerance to water deficiency stress in maize seedlings, as evidenced by maintaining the higher photosynthetic parameters, leaf water status and plant transpiration rate. The relatively higher whole-plant hydraulic conductance (Kplant) and root hydraulic conductance (Lpr) in MEL-treated seedlings suggest that exogenous MEL alleviated water deficiency stress by promoting root water absorption. HgCl2 (aquaporin inhibitor) treatment inhibit the transpiration rate in MEL-treated plants greater than those of MEL-untreated; after recovery by dithiothreitol (DTT, anti-inhibitor), the transpiration rate in MEL-treated plants increased much higher than those of untreated plants. Moreover, under water deficiency, the transcription level of aquaporin genes was up-regulated by MEL application, and the H2O2 was less accumulated in MEL-treated root.ConclusionsExogenous MEL promoted aquaporin activity, which contributed to the maintaining of Lpr and Kplant under short-term water deficiency. The increased water uptake and transport lead to improved water status and thus increased tolerance to PEG-induced short-term water deficiency in maize seedlings.