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Partial root drying : a sustainable irrigation system for efficient water use without reducing fruit yield

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A plant's physiological response to drought

In order to improve plant characteristics through genetic intervention, a necessary first step is an extensive understanding of plant physiology. University scientists across the Mediterranean came together to further such knowledge for principal crops in their regions.

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Plant physiology is the study of the structure and function of plants throughout their entire lifecycle. Plant physiology research has made significant contributions to the field of agriculture. Knowledge gained from experimental results has led to new strains of primary crops, more resistant to pests, heat, drought and other environmental pressures. Research groups spread throughout the Mediterranean gathered to address a common problem faced by farmers in their region - sustainable irrigation practice. Assisted by the Fifth Framework Programme, the scientists investigated the physiological response of several major regional crops to Partial Root Drying (PRD). PRD is an irrigation technique designed to maintain plant yield while significantly reducing water usage by means of a unique watering configuration. The typical response of a plant to reduced water availability, is a reduction in its ability to take up water, nitrogen and other essential nutrients. This in turn decreases the plant's growth rate. The goal is to be able to identify and understand the underlying processes governing this procedure. The idea would then, armed with this information, be to genetically modify plant traits in order to inhibit the plant's natural response. The parameters measured include: plant water status, levels of peroxidase activity and xylem pH, and concentrations of phenolic compounds and abscisic acid (ABA). ABA is an important plant hormone guiding the plant's natural defences against external stresses, inhibiting growth and promoting dormancy. The outcome of the analysis was mixed. ABA levels were not differentiable, but phenolic compound concentrations were elevated, specifically in the leaf cell walls. This and other knowledge gathered during the project are being shared with the international community through conferences and journal publications. Of particular importance for future research is the variability in response between different crop types. Such work is crucial for sustainable agricultural if techniques such as partial root drying are to be implemented effectively.

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