Could better corn roots be the key to better quality soil and water? According to the article “How Corn Roots Got Better by Accident, traditional plant breeding has also made roots better at taking up nitrogen, though more research is need to understand the mechanisms.
Here are some key points from the article:
Image: Courtesy of Larry York
Using a Penn State-developed computer program called SimRoot, researchers modeled the average root architecture of modern corn hybrids (shown) to help compare it to that of older varieties.
“About half of the yield gains in commercial corn hybrids in the last 100 years have come from improved plant genetics, explains Larry York, recent PhD graduate in ecology, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Nottingham. The other half came largely from agronomic practices, such as fertilizer use and higher planting densities.”
“A lot of research has focused on the shoots of maize plants, such as the direction of the leaves and how they capture light, or how the plants divide matter into ears and kernels,” York says. “We all know roots are responsible for the uptake of water and nutrients. However, relatively little is known about how roots do that.
“If we understand how roots have evolved and which specific root traits increase the plant’s efficiency, then we can take the next step in breeding that can help decrease pollution, save farmers money and make more yield.”
“Not only can crop varieties with improved root systems increase yields and reduce hunger in impoverished regions of the world with nutrient-poor soils, they also can decrease excess nitrogen where water quality is a critical issue, such as in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
"The researchers hypothesized that during a century of corn breeding aimed at increasing yields, root systems were indirectly selected for architecture and anatomy that are more efficient for nitrogen acquisition."
"The researchers found that the newest commercial varieties performed better in every agronomic environment. These varieties also had root characteristics known from previous Penn State research to make plants more efficient at acquiring nitrogen from the soil, including fewer nodal roots, longer lateral roots, and larger cortical cells. They published their results online in the Journal of Experimental Botany."
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