Study gets to the root of crop yields

This image of an undis turbed root system was taken with a mini-rhyzotron, one of the new tools that plant researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are using to take a more in-depth look at root system development. | University of Saskatchewan photo

University of Saskatchewan researchers will receive more than $5.7 million to support 32 projects in various academic disciplines, including agriculture.

“Our scientists are on a constant quest to provide discovery the world needs, and this deeply appreciated investment from the federal government will fuel these efforts,” said U of S vice-president of research Baljit Singh.

The funds announced June 15 are delivered through Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) Discovery Grants Program.

The grants provide up to five years of support for research projects that demonstrate creativity and innovation.

For U of S agriculture professor Maryse Bourgault, a grant worth $177,500 will support research that looks at root development and architecture in Saskatchewan pulse crops.

Root development and architecture are important factors that influence a plant’s adaptability and yield potential in semi-arid growing conditions.

Compared to other types of research that deal with plant physiology, research into root architecture has been limited.

Much of the existing research dealing with drought tolerance in plants is focused on above-ground traits such as leaf development and photosynthetic capacity.

“With roots, it’s a little bit of a new frontier because they’re hard to see,” Bourgault explained.

“They’re hidden in the ground so it’s a little bit different, but recently we’ve gained access to a few more tools that allow us to have a better look at what’s happening underground.”

One of them is called a mini-rhyzotron.

The device uses a transparent cylindrical tube that’s inserted into the ground below a growing plant.

A specialized scanning device is then placed inside the tube at various stages of plant growth to create images of undisturbed roots.

The image allows researchers to observe root characteristics such as root depth, root structure and root surface area.

By observing root characteristics, Bourgault hopes to determine which root traits are important for adaptation and yield in prairie growing conditions.

“Do we need a bigger root system, for example, or do we need a root system that’s a bit more fibrous?” she said.

“We used to think that bigger was better… but in recent years, we’re kind of reassessing that and we’re thinking that having bigger root systems might mean that (the plant) is putting a lot of reserves into something that you might not want.”

Under certain conditions, using nutrients and moisture to build a large root system might be akin to building a four-lane highway in an area that only requires two lanes to move traffic efficiently.

In a recent interview with The Western Producer, Bourgault said her research is aimed at allowing plant breeders to select for preferred root traits that are related to higher yields.

One challenge is determining which root characteristics perform well under a variety of environmental conditions, she added.

Researchers are examining root structures of lentils, pictured here, and field peas to determine which root characteristics are linked to yield and adaptability in semi-arid growing conditions. | University of Saskatchewan photo

“We’re trying to look for things that are consistent from year to year but it’s difficult because our seasons can be so different,” she said.

“We have to deal with the interaction between genetics and the environment and that can obviously create issues.”

Bourgault’s root research is focused on peas and lentils but she hopes to include chickpeas in future field studies.

Field-based research is being conducted near Saskatoon, Clavet and Central Butte, Sask.

The goal is to identify preferred root traits and to develop genetic markers for those traits that could be incorporated into pulse breeding programs.

“Eventually we’d like to get to a point where we could actually identify genes that are related to these traits.”

A complete list of U of S researchers that were awarded NSERC research grants can be viewed online here.

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