Getting to the Root of the Issue

By Ronit Ridberg

Strategies for improving food security and raising agricultural crop yields tend to focus on results seen above ground – the literal fruits of agricultural labor and research. But according to a recent article in Nature, many scientists around the world are beginning to focus on plant roots as a source for innovations to increase yield.

New research points to the power of roots to increase yield. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack).

“Roots are the key to a second green revolution,” says Jonathan Lynch, a plant nutritionist at Pennsylvania State University. Unlike the Green Revolution that began in the 1940’s and relied heavily on adding fertilizer, pesticides, and water, Lynch and others describe how root research looks instead at improving  the “ability to use what’s already there and, in the process, help to convert ‘marginal’ lands into production ones.”

Some of the research described in the article looks at favoring plants with deep roots, especially in drought-prone areas, since deeper roots “can tap water beneath parched soils, whereas fine, shallow roots exploit soils in which limiting nutrients are trapped at the surface.” Taking advantage of roots’ natural tendency to seek nutrients has encouraged some scientists to pursue mechanisms to help roots take up nitrogen more efficiently. Others are working on how to exploit nitrogen-fixing genes that occur naturally in leguminous crops like lentils and soya beans and find a way to introduce them in cereal plants like wheat, maize and rice.

Root research is far from a quick fix: adding nitrogen fixation genes, for example, will be a minimum of a ten-year project according to Eric Triplett, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Cell Science at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But the hope with focusing on the roots is that farmers will be able to prevent the negative environmental consequences of the first Green Revolution, like depletion of groundwater and pollution of waterways from the use of chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers.

To read this article and others in Nature’s special Food series, see: Can Science Feed the World?

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet project

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