ROOT OF THE ISSUE
By John Toon
Plant scientists are working to improve important food crops such as rice, maize, and beans to meet the food needs of a growing world population. Root systems are essential to this work, but understanding what’s happening in these unseen parts of the plants has, until now, depended mostly on lab studies and subjective field measurements.
To address that need, researchers from Georgia Tech and Penn State University have developed an imaging technique for measuring and analyzing the root systems of mature plants. The technique uses advanced computer technology to analyze photographs of root systems in the field.
Root systems are complicated and vary among plants of the same species. Analyzing critical root properties in field-grown plants has traditionally depended on manual measurements, which vary with observer.
This new technique uses digital photography to provide a detailed image of roots from mature plants in the field. Individual plants to be studied are dug up and their root systems washed clean of soil. The roots are then photographed and the resulting images uploaded to a server that analyzes the root systems for more than 30 different parameters. The imaging and software are designed to give scientists statistical information to evaluate crop improvement efforts.
“We can measure entire root systems for thousands of plants to give geneticists the information they need to search for genes with the best characteristics,” said Alexander Bucksch, a postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia Tech School of Biology and School of Interactive Computing. The research is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Howard Buffett Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. It was reported in the journal Plant Physiology.