Root anatomical phenes associated with water acquisition from drying soil: targets for crop improvement

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Journal of Experimental Botany, April 2014


Several root anatomical phenes affect water acquisition from drying soil, and may therefore have utility in breeding more drought-tolerant crops. Anatomical phenes that reduce the metabolic cost of the root cortex (‘cortical burden’) improve soil exploration and therefore water acquisition from drying soil. The best evidence for this is for root cortical aerenchyma; cortical cell file number and cortical senescence may also be useful in this context. Variation in the number and diameter of xylem vessels strongly affects axial water conductance. Reduced axial conductance may be useful in conserving soil water so that a crop may complete its life cycle under terminal drought. Variation in the suberization and lignification of the endodermis and exodermis affects radial water conductance, and may therefore be important in reducing water loss from mature roots into dry soil. Rhizosheaths may protect the water status of young root tissue. Root hairs and larger diameter root tips improve root penetration of hard, drying soil. Many of these phenes show substantial genotypic variation. The utility of these phenes for water acquisition has only rarely been validated, and may have strong interactions with the spatiotemporal dynamics of soil water availability, and with root architecture and other aspects of the root phenotype. This complexity calls for structural–functional plant modelling and 3D imaging methods. Root anatomical phenes represent a promising yet underexplored and untapped source of crop breeding targets.

Key words: Aerenchyma, cereals, cortex, drought, root anatomy, xylem