Strock CF, H Rangarajan, CK Black, ED Schäfer, JP Lynch


Annals of Botany

Download Options


Background and Aims: Although root penetration of strong soils has been intensively studied at the scale of individual root axes, interactions between soil physical properties and soil foraging by whole plants are less clear. Here we investigate how variation in the penetration ability of distinct root classes and bulk density profiles common to real-world soils interact to affect soil foraging strategies. 

Methods: We utilize the functional-structural plant model OpenSimRoot to simulate the growth of maize (Zea mays) root systems with variable penetration ability of axial and lateral roots in soils with 1) uniform bulk density, 2) plow pans, and 3) increasing bulk density with depth. We also modify the availability and leaching of nitrate to uncover reciprocal interactions between these factors and the capture of mobile resources.

Key Results: Soils with plow pans and bulk density gradients affected overall size, distribution, and carbon costs of the root system. Soils with high bulk density at depth impeded rooting depth and reduced leaching of nitrate, thereby improving the coincidence of N and root length. While increasing penetration ability of either axial or lateral root classes produced root systems of comparable net length, improved penetration of axial roots increased allocation of root length in deeper soil, thereby amplifying N acquisition and shoot biomass. Although enhanced penetration ability of both root classes was associated with greater root system carbon costs, the benefit to plant fitness from improved soil exploration and resource capture offset these. 

Conclusions: While lateral roots comprise the bulk of root length, axial roots function as a scaffold determining the distribution of these laterals. In soils with high soil strength and leaching, root systems with enhanced penetration ability of axial roots have greater distribution of root length at depth, thereby improving capture of mobile resources.