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A Closer Look at Roots: Searching for Drought Solutions

By Courtney Leeper, Writer

Posted Jan. 11, 2019

Roots are the unsung heroes of a plant. Like a behind-the-scenes stage hand, roots set the scene for a productive show of tasty growth that will nourish animals and humans. A tiny root is the first to emerge from a seed, and roots grow to provide the foundation for the entire plant. Roots also act as ambassadors that form beneficial partnerships with neighboring creatures in the soil. They seek out water and nutrients then act as pipelines that transport those necessities to other parts of the plant. But not all roots are created equal.

Rooted in Water?

Ana Paez-Garcia, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Noble Research Institute, is interested in what makes some wheat varieties better able to remain productive in drought conditions. Farmers and ranchers in the Southern Great Plains, and many other parts of the world, are all-too-familiar with their crops dying of thirst because of drought. They need varieties that excel at using water, a process that starts with roots.

Looking for Answers

Paez-Garcia knows that not all root systems develop the same look. Some grow deeper into the ground or form more branches off of primary roots. Every aspect of a root’s composition, down to the thickness of individual root cell walls, could influence how easily water moves through the root.

To determine which roots take up water best, Paez-Garcia needs to do a lot of counting and measuring. She does this by taking wheat plants from the field, washing off their roots, and collecting information about the roots from general, big-picture characteristics to individual cell characteristics.

The Problem

It takes time to manually count the number of cells in a root system and measure the angles of each root. To understand the root’s hydraulic properties, or its ability to suck water up into the plant’s shoot system (the part that grows aboveground), Paez-Garcia needs to look inside the root. This means she has to cut into the root to look at its cross section, a process that can only be done once before it ruins the root. These processes require complicated equipment and countless hours.

A Tech Solution

Paez-Garcia maximizes her time by applying a series of computational models that help her visualize the insides and outsides of roots and predict how these factors, combined with soil characteristics, will affect the plant’s ability to take up water. With this information, Paez-Garcia will have a better idea of which root characteristics best help plants access water. Plant breeders will then be able to apply this information when developing cultivars more tolerant to drought.