ARDMORE, Okla. — Roots are more than just the location where soil and plants come into contact. They play a critical role in the environment and hold a great deal of promise for helping us improve agricultural sustainability.
Roots not only anchor plants to soil; they anchor soil to itself, thus preventing erosion. Roots are also responsible for taking in nutrients and water from the soil. Natural variation in root form and function can be used to breed more resilient crops.
However, roots are the hidden half of the plant, and observing their form and function is made difficult by their underground life. While scientists have gained a better understanding of the structure of root networks within the soil (called root system architecture), few studies have explored what roots do and how they do it.
To help answer these questions, researchers at the Noble Research Institute and University of Missouri (MU) recently received a two-year, $290,000 EAGER grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). EAGER grants, or "early concept grants for exploratory research," are awarded to researchers with plans to conduct challenging studies with great potential for high-payoff.
The grant will enable Larry York, Ph.D., project director (Noble), and co-project directors, Felix Fritschi, Ph.D., and Robert Sharp, Ph.D. (both with MU), to enhance understanding of root function and plant nutrient uptake.
York and his team will develop a new method to measure uptake of nutrients by plant roots in a high-throughput fashion. This will help them determine the genetic basis of how plants take in nutrients as well as what causes variation in uptake ability among plant varieties.
"Only about half of the nutrients we apply to fields is absorbed by plants," York said. "If we could breed plants with a better ability to take in those nutrients, in part through knowledge gained about how their roots help in this process, then we could perhaps reduce the need for fertilizers. This in turn will help farmers and ranchers save money spent on inputs while increasing their crop production and reducing runoff pollution."
Researchers will begin their studies with corn. Once the base method is developed, the research will be expanded to wheat and other forage species. Technologies will enable researchers to test hundreds of plants at once for how fast the plants take in 16 nutrients, including the most essential – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The maximum uptake rate and the uptake affinity, or ability to take up at low concentrations, will be measured.
"Eventually, we hope to be able to answer more questions about how other factors, like heat stress and microbes, play a role in plant roots’ ability to take up nutrients," York said. "This research will be challenging, but it could bring great possibilities and rewards for agriculture, farmers and ranchers, and all of society."
Noble Research Institute scientist Larry York, Ph.D., (pictured), and University of Missouri scientists Felix Fritschi, Ph.D., and Robert Sharp, Ph.D., received a grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to enhance the understanding of root function and plant nutrient uptake.