Almost all the plant research in the past 100 and more years has been based on what the scientists can see above the ground but this week more than 300 research workers from 38 countries around the globe will congregate in Dundee to highlight how root systems can improve plant growth, reduce fertiliser requirements and improve disease resistance.
Although it is a science still in its infancy, the scientists believe that across the world, their work could help create a second “green revolution” with more efficient plants producing more food to feed more people.
Speaking ahead of the conference which starts today, Professor Peter Gregory, former chief executive of the Scottish Crop Research Institute and now chief executive of East Malling Research, admitted root research had been a relatively neglected area of science.
Researchers were only just beginning to understand how roots worked because scientists finally had the tools to investigate them fully.
He said: “The simple reason more work hasn’t been undertaken on roots is because they are hidden while you can see the rest of the plant so it’s easy to measure and study it. But now we are able to employ new techniques similar to body scanning which enable us to see and research the roots in the soil.”
While the benefits from this branch of science would bring improved crop efficiencies to all parts of the world, it would be of more importance in some than in others.
Within Scotland, which is one of the leading centres of this branch of research and where work is already on-going, the benefits would mostly come through increased efficiencies in nutrient uptake and water usage.
Dr Paul Hallett of the James Hutton (JH) Institute said that an example of the potential which could come from a better understanding of what goes on underground was that some existing potato varieties have five times more roots than others.
He also highlighted research which showed that soil compaction with reduced root activity could result in one-third of potential production being lost, or more fertiliser having to be used to compensate.
His colleague, Dr Glyn Bengough, estimated that a “lack of strength” affected one-third of Scottish soils and improved root systems would help counteract this deficiency.
Emphasising the increased importance being given to research underground, the Home Grown Cereals Authority awarded a grant of £2.6 million earlier this month to a group of research stations including the JH Institute to carry out work on improving soils and roots systems.
Another research programme – this time the €3m (£2.4m) cost is being picked up by the EU – will see 14 institutes working together on including disease resistance into crops via improved root systems
Bengough said the work he and his colleagues were carrying out would help plant breeders bring forward more efficient cultivars in the future.
He declined to put a timetable on this but Dr Tim George, also from the JH Institute and a holder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, medal pointed to examples in other parts of the world where root improvements were already helping farmers.
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Monday 20 May 2013
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