Breeding crop plants with deep roots: their role in sustainable carbon, nutrient and water sequestration

Ann Bot. 2011 Sep;108(3):407-18. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcr175. Epub 2011 Aug 3.


Background: The soil represents a reservoir that contains at least twice as much carbon as does the atmosphere, yet (apart from 'root crops') mainly just the above-ground plant biomass is harvested in agriculture, and plant photosynthesis represents the effective origin of the overwhelming bulk of soil carbon. However, present estimates of the carbon sequestration potential of soils are based more on what is happening now than what might be changed by active agricultural intervention, and tend to concentrate only on the first metre of soil depth.

Scope: Breeding crop plants with deeper and bushy root ecosystems could simultaneously improve both the soil structure and its steady-state carbon, water and nutrient retention, as well as sustainable plant yields. The carbon that can be sequestered in the steady state by increasing the rooting depths of crop plants and grasses from, say, 1 m to 2 m depends significantly on its lifetime(s) in different molecular forms in the soil, but calculations ( suggest that this breeding strategy could have a hugely beneficial effect in stabilizing atmospheric CO(2). This sets an important research agenda, and the breeding of plants with improved and deep rooting habits and architectures is a goal well worth pursuing.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomass*
  • Breeding
  • Carbon / metabolism
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism*
  • Carbon Sequestration*
  • Crops, Agricultural / physiology*
  • Plant Roots / physiology*
  • Soil
  • Water / physiology


  • Soil
  • Water
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Carbon