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Adapting Roots to a hotter planet could ease pressure on food supply

Alan Flurry

The shoots of plants get all of the glory, with their fruit and flowers and visible structure. But it's the portion that lies below the soil — the branching, reaching arms of roots and hairs pulling up water and nutrients — that interests plant physiologist and computer scientist, Alexander Bucksch, associate professor of Plant Biology at the University of Georgia.

The health and growth of the root system has deep implications for our future.

Our ability to grow enough food to support the population despite a changing climate, and to fix carbon from the atmosphere in the soil are critical to our, and other species', survival. The solutions, Bucksch believes, lie in the qualities of roots.

"When there is a problem in the world, humans can move. But what does the plant do?" he asked. "It says, ‘Let's alter our genome to survive.' It evolves."

3D root scanner prototype. The 3D root scanner captures images of an excavated maize root grown under field conditions. [Credit: Bucksch et al.]

Until recently, farmers and plant breeders didn't have a good way to gather information about the root system of plants, or make decisions about the optimal seeds to grow deep roots.

In a paper published this month in Plant Physiology, Bucksch and colleagues introduce DIRT/3D (Digital Imaging of Root Traits), an image-based 3D root phenotyping platform that can measure 18 architecture traits from mature field-grown maize root crowns excavated using the Shovelomics technique.

In their experiments, the system reliably computed all traits, including the distance between whorls and the number, angles, and diameters of nodal roots for 12 contrasting maize genotypes with 84 percent agreement with manual measurements. The research is supported by the ROOTS program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) and a CAREER award from National Science Foundation (NSF).

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Image: Digital twins of the underground universe. The composite artwork illustrates the data processing challenges of digital agriculture as a chimera of a real photograph and reconstructed 3D model of the same maize root. [Artwork credit: Alexander Bucksch and Suxing Liu]

Article by Aaron Dubrow

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