Can diversity in root architecture explain plant water use efficiency? A modeling study

Ecol Modell. 2015 Sep 24:312:200-210. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2015.05.028.


Drought stress is a dominant constraint to crop production. Breeding crops with adapted root systems for effective uptake of water represents a novel strategy to increase crop drought resistance. Due to complex interaction between root traits and high diversity of hydrological conditions, modeling provides important information for trait based selection. In this work we use a root architecture model combined with a soil-hydrological model to analyze whether there is a root system ideotype of general adaptation to drought or water uptake efficiency of root systems is a function of specific hydrological conditions. This was done by modeling transpiration of 48 root architectures in 16 drought scenarios with distinct soil textures, rainfall distributions, and initial soil moisture availability. We find that the efficiency in water uptake of root architecture is strictly dependent on the hydrological scenario. Even dense and deep root systems are not superior in water uptake under all hydrological scenarios. Our results demonstrate that mere architectural description is insufficient to find root systems of optimum functionality. We find that in environments with sufficient rainfall before the growing season, root depth represents the key trait for the exploration of stored water, especially in fine soils. Root density, instead, especially near the soil surface, becomes the most relevant trait for exploiting soil moisture when plant water supply is mainly provided by rainfall events during the root system development. We therefore concluded that trait based root breeding has to consider root systems with specific adaptation to the hydrology of the target environment.

Keywords: Crop breeding; Root architecture model; Root growth; Soil water model; Water uptake efficiency.