Genotypic variation for water status and gas exchange parameters under different water treatments (well-watered and water-stressed plants before and after rehydration) were investigated in a population of recombinant inbred lines (RILs) of sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.). Afterwards, four RILs and parental lines presenting contrasting responses to dehydration and rehydration were selected to determine the differential expression of four water-stress associated genes: aquaporin, dehydrin, leafy cotyledon1-like protein and fructose-1,6 bisphosphatase. Water stress revealed a high genetic variability for water status and gas exchange parameters when compared with well-watered genotypes. Genetic gain when selected RILs were compared with the best parent was significant for most traits due to transgressive segregation. QTL mapping and graphical genotyping showed that RILs carrying different genomic regions for some QTLs presented also physiological different characteristics as well as gene expression patterns. The expression level of aquaporin genes in leaves of four RILs and their parents was down regulated by water stress and was associated with relative water content (RWC). Down-regulation was also associated with genomic regions having alleles with negative effects on plant water status. The level of dehydrin transcripts increased in leaves of all studied RILs in response to water stress. Transcript accumulations of dehydrin and leafy cotyledon1-like genes, likely involved in protective tolerance processes, were not correlated directly with plant water status or QTL effects. Down-regulation of fructose-1,6 bisphosphatase was observed under water stress. Net photosynthesis rate (Pn) and the fructose-1,6 bisphosphatase gene expression levels were associated mainly after rehydration. This phenomenon indicates an association between physiological response to water stress and differential expression of water-stress related genes.