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Crops and climate change

An EU team examined whether crops can grow roots where nutrients are in the soil, finding that maize does do this. The team found that pH is also a key factor in root growth, and developed genetic markers for crop breeding projects.
Crops and climate change
Climate change will mean soil drying, which will affect surface soil availability of water and nutrients for crop species. To adapt, plants will have to develop roots at alternative soil strata, yet complex and poorly understood factors affect plants' ability to do so.

The EU-funded EUROOT (Enhancing resource uptake from roots under stress in cereal crops) project investigated cereal roots. The study precised how such species acquire water and nutrients through their roots, and also how the plants maintain growth under stressful conditions.

Researchers identified genetic markers for various physiological and morphological root traits, to be used for breeding programmes. The group's breeding work helped isolate genes, and illustrated how they may be used in combination for breeding for specific root traits. Studied species included maize, rice, barley and durum wheat.

Results demonstrated that maize responds to deep placement of nutrients by developing roots at the appropriate depth. Such growth may help the plants resist surface soil drying, while also sustaining productivity. Soil pH also had a major influence on the ways roots develop to acquire phosphorus, and therefore the optimal root structure varies according to pH. Such results suggest important implications for screening procedures in breeding programmes and soil management practices.

The team also identified hormone and molecular signatures for various rooting responses, dependent on environmental conditions in the soil. Work further revealed the genetic basic for variation of root hydraulic conductance depending on nitrate levels. Results helped researchers develop strategies to optimise water usage under various nitrogen fertiliser conditions.

EUROOT developed several methods of assessing the variation of root structure according to nutrient supply. Methods included a combination of X-ray, computerised tomography and magnetic resonance imaging techniques.

Researchers concluded that barley and maize root traits are highly heritable, and correlated genetic markers with specific root traits. Workers modelled how water and nutrients flow into and around cereal roots, with implications for uptake processes.

The project's results improve understanding of root response to soil environmental conditions. Hence, European agriculture will be better equipped to breed crops more tolerant of a warming climate.

Related information


Life Sciences


Crops, climate change, roots, nutrients, soil, soil drying, EURoot
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