Novel root scanning technique reveals underground plant traits

Soil Root Measurement

Source: International Centre for Tropical Agriculture

Crop scientists can now study roots directly in the field without damaging or uprooting them. This revolutionary technique will help breed crop varieties with higher yield potential and drought tolerance.

CIAT’s phenotyping platform is using the new tool – called “ground-penetrating radar (GPR)” – through a partnership with Texas A&M University, USA , and IDS North America Ltd. (Ingegneria Dei Sistemi), an Italian-based firm located in Canada, together with the Center’s Cassava Program. The electromagnetic imaging technique is commonly used to detect buried objects or hidden structures. Until now, it has mainly been applied in geology, archaeology, and forensics. Forestry researchers recognized the potential of GPR to estimate tree root biomass.

Studying root characteristics is critical for increasing plant productivity, particularly in water- and nutrient-scarce environments. The main obstacle has been scientists’ inability to view the position and architecture of the roots in underground field conditions. Incorporating GPR into current phenotyping methodologies will provide new insights that help enhance crop productivity under current and future climate conditions.

The primary objective of the research, funded by CGIAR Research Program on Rice – also known as the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) – and CGIAR-US Universities Linkage Program, is to define the capability of GPR to phenotype below-ground biomass in cassava and rice. For the development of high-throughput phenotyping methods, the below-ground biomass will be determined by both destructive (uprooting the plants from field plots) and non-destructive root sampling methods, and the resulting data will be analyzed to determine the accuracy of GPR.

As GPR (about the size of a vacuum cleaner) is manually pulled through the crop rows, it sends electromagnetic waves into the ground, which travel through the soil and are recorded by the receiver within seconds. Based on these signals, a special software is used to display a three-dimensional picture of the below-ground resources. This method can be used to take field measurements multiple times throughout the growing season.

“We’re in the early stages of adapting the technology; once we’ve figured out all the details, we’ll be ready to go,” said Michael Gomez Selvaraj, the CIAT crop physiologist who manages the GPR project. “The preliminary results are very promising for both cassava and rice. This is the first time GPR is being used for cassava; it can later be applied to other root and tuber crops as well.”

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