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Research reveals how crop roots penetrate hard soils

Scientists have discovered a signal that causes roots to stop growing in hard soils which can be ‘switched off’ to allow them to punch through compacted soil – a discovery that could help plants to grow in even the most damaged soils.

An international research team, led by scientists from the University of Nottingham’s Future Food Beacon and Shanghai Jiao Tong University has discovered how the plant signal ‘ethylene’ causes roots to stop growing in hard soils, but after this signal is disabled, roots are able to push through compacted soil.

Potential for new crops that can go deeper in soils

Professor Sacha Mooney from the University of Nottingham and Director of the Hounsfield Facility explained: “Prior to this research we assumed that the hardness of the soil prevented roots growing deeper. By using our imaging approach, we were able to see that roots continued growing in very hard soils when the ethylene signal was switched off. The potential for new crops that can now go deeper in soils and capture previously unavailable resources is really exciting!”

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The research utilised X-ray Computed Tomography scanners available at the Hounsfield Facility at the University of Nottingham to visualise in situ how plant roots responded to compacted soil. - Photo: University of Nottingham
The research utilised X-ray Computed Tomography scanners available at the Hounsfield Facility at the University of Nottingham to visualise in situ how plant roots responded to compacted soil. - Photo: University of Nottingham

Breeding crops more resilient to soil compaction

Professor Malcolm Bennett, University of Nottingham, School of Biosciences, said: “Understanding how roots penetrate hard soils has huge implications for agriculture, as this knowledge will be crucial for breeding crops more resilient to soil compaction. Our team’s identification that the plant signal ethylene controls root responses to hard soil opens up new opportunities to select novel compaction resistant crops.”

Hard (compacted) soils represent a major challenge facing modern agriculture that can reduce crop yields over 50% by reducing root growth, causing significant losses annually. Europe has over 33-million-hectares of soil prone to compaction which represents the highest in the world.

The cost of compaction needs to count not only the investment in time, fuel and equipment required to take remedial action to repair the damage, but also the significant yield loss it often causes. How do you count the cost of soil compaction?

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