Breakthrough in measuring root depth for drought tolerance

Mar 25, 2024


Penn State researchers have developed a method that promises to revolutionize how crops are bred for resilience against drought and efficiency in carbon storage. This novel approach, employing X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, allows for the estimation of plant root depths without the traditional, time-consuming process of digging up the plants. Such an innovation is crucial as the agriculture sector seeks solutions to the growing challenges posed by climate change.

The method, detailed in the Crop Science journal, involves scanning plant leaves for chemical elements that indicate the depth of root absorption in soil layers. This correlation between leaf chemical composition and root depth enables researchers to non-invasively assess the rooting characteristics of plants, thereby identifying those with the potential to withstand drought conditions, access deeper soil nutrients, and sequester carbon more effectively.

With the urgent need to address global warming and enhance food security, the ability to breed crops with deeper root systems represents a critical advancement. Deep-rooted crops not only have better access to water and nutrients, reducing their vulnerability to drought, but also contribute to mitigating climate change by storing more carbon in the soil — a double win for environmental sustainability and agricultural productivity.

This research, supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the USDA, opens new avenues for improving crop resilience and sustainability. By facilitating the selection of plants with superior root systems, the LEADER method stands to significantly impact agricultural practices, making them more adaptable to changing climatic conditions and securing the future of food production.

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