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Novel Method to Measure Root Depth May Lead to More Resilient Crops

Novel Method to Measure Root Depth May Lead to More Resilient Crops

As climate change worsens global drought conditions, hindering crop production, the search for ways to capture and store atmospheric carbon causing the phenomenon has intensified. Penn State researchers have developed a new high-tech tool that could spur changes in how crops withstand drought, acquire nitrogen and store carbon deeper in soil.

In findings recently published in Crop Science, they describe a process in which the depth of plant roots can be accurately estimated by scanning leaves with X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, a process that detects chemical elements in the foliage. The method recognizes that roots take up elements they encounter, depending on the depth they reach, and a correlation exists between chemical elements in the leaves and root depth.

An added benefit to deeper-rooting crops, Lynch noted, is that they store carbon in the soil more effectively. And soil is the right place to put carbon, he pointed out, because carbon in the atmosphere is a bad thing – it causes global warming. Carbon in the soil is a good thing – it boosts fertility.

“Having deeper roots means that carbon the plants get from photosynthesis is stored down deeper in the soil when they build roots. And the deeper carbon is put in the soil, the longer it stays in the soil,” he said. “The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that just having deep-rooted crops in America alone could offset years of our total carbon emissions. That’s huge – think about all the acres growing crops in America. If those roots grow just a little bit deeper, then we’re storing massive amounts of carbon deeper in the soil.”

It involved growing a set of 30 genetically distinct lines of corn at Penn State’s Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center, the University of Colorado’s Agricultural Research and Education Center, the University of Wisconsin Arlington Agricultural Research Station, and the University of Wisconsin Hancock Agricultural Research Station. The researchers found that they could correctly classify the plots with the longest deep root lengths – deeper than 30 or 40 centimeters – using the LEADER method with high accuracy.

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Photo Credit: gettyimages-mvburling

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