Don’t ignore the roots… or the soil!

Image: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Image: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Lab exper­i­ments are all well and good, but they do have their lim­it­a­tions. It is neces­sary to study plants out­side, in the field – or rather below the sur­face! This theme was explored at the UKPSF con­fer­ence by Nick Ostle (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster) who argued that plant–soil eco­lo­gical inter­ac­tions are a crit­ical – but poorly under­stood! – determ­in­ant of how land eco­sys­tems respond to global changes. His talk exten­ded the con­cerns bey­ond the purely bio­lo­gical to the wider issues sur­round­ing eco­sys­tem ser­vices, and even intro­duced the intriguing notion of ‘grass­land bio­tech­no­logy’(!). Linked to this was Sasha Mooney (University of Nottingham) look­ing (lit­er­ally!) at root growth, but root growth with a dif­fer­ence: actu­ally examin­ing the growth of roots in the soil. The tech­nique used was X-ray micro­com­puted tomo­graphy (μCT), which allows non-invasive ima­ging of intact roots in situ. Whilst using CT to image plant mater­ial is not new, the break­through is the com­puter pro­gram used to assemble and inter­pret the images recor­ded – RooTrak, which per­mits auto­mated recov­ery of 3-D plant root archi­tec­ture. Too many exper­i­ments on root growth and devel­op­ment are per­formed on roots grow­ing in agar or on a lab bench, and about as far away from soil as you can get (and whose rel­ev­ance to the real world is there­fore ques­tion­able). So, this is an unpar­alleled oppor­tun­ity to get the root’s per­spect­ive on life under­ground. As organs that sup­port the above-ground part of the plant, that often store much of the pho­to­syn­thet­ic­ally gen­er­ated bio­mass, that allow exploit­a­tion of nutri­ents and water reserves in the soil, and that form intim­ate and mutu­ally bene­fi­cial asso­ci­ations with fungi and bac­teria, etc (!!), the more we know about these secret­ive sub­ter­ranean ‘sys­tems’ the bet­ter. Accordingly, ‘RooTrak sup­ports the com­pu­ta­tion of a range of quant­it­at­ive meas­ures and prom­ises to facil­it­ate future root phen­o­typ­ing for trait-based crop breed­ing efforts’. I’m look­ing for­ward to the day when it will gen­er­ate high qual­ity images of a root and its asso­ci­ated mycor­rhizal mycelial net­work – now, there’s a challenge!

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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