Theoretical evidence for the functional benefit of root cortical aerenchyma in soils with low phosphorus availability


Postma, J.A.; Lynch, J.P.


Annals of Botany 107: 829-841 (2012)


Background and Aims The formation of root cortical aerenchyma (RCA) reduces root respiration and nutrient content by converting living tissue to air volume. It was hypothesized that RCA increases soil resource acquisition by reducing the metabolic and phosphorus cost of soil exploration.

Methods To test the quantitative logic of the hypothesis,SimRoot, a functional–structural plant model with emphasis on root architecture and nutrient acquisition, was employed. Sensitivity analyses for the effects of RCA on the initial 40 d of growth of maize (Zea mays) and common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) were conducted in soils with varying degrees of phosphorus availability. With reference to future climates, the benefit of having RCA in high CO2 environments was simulated.

Key Results The model shows that RCA may increase the growth of plants faced with suboptimal phosphorus availability up to 70 % for maize and 14 % for bean after 40 d of growth. Maximum increases were obtained at low phosphorus availability (3 µM). Remobilization of phosphorus from dying cells had a larger effect on plant growth than reduced root respiration. The benefit of both these functions was additive and increased over time. Larger benefits may be expected for mature plants. Sensitivity analysis for light-use efficiency showed that the benefit of having RCA is relatively stable, suggesting that elevated CO2 in future climates will not significantly effect the benefits of having RCA.

Conclusions The results support the hypothesis that RCA is an adaptive trait for phosphorus acquisition by remobilizing phosphorus from the root cortex and reducing the metabolic costs of soil exploration. The benefit of having RCA in low-phosphorus soils is larger for maize than for bean, as maize is more sensitive to low phosphorus availability while it has a more ‘expensive’ root system. Genetic variation in RCA may be useful for breeding phosphorus-efficient crop cultivars, which is important for improving global food security.