Root foraging enables plants to obtain more soil nutrients in a constantly changing nutrient environment. Little is known about the adaptation mechanism of adventitious roots of plants dominated by asexual reproduction (such as tea plants) to soil potassium heterogeneity. We investigated root foraging strategies for K by two tea plants (low-K tolerant genotype "1511" and low-K intolerant genotype "1601") using a multi-layer split-root system. Root exudates, root architecture and transcriptional responses to K heterogeneity were analyzed by HPLC, WinRHIZO and RNA-seq. With the higher leaf K concentrations and K biological utilization indexes, "1511" acclimated to K heterogeneity better than "1601". For "1511", maximum total root length and fine root length proportion appeared on the K-enriched side; the solubilization of soil K reached the maximum on the low-K side, which was consistent with the amount of organic acids released through root exudation. The cellulose decomposition genes that were abundant on the K-enriched side may have promoted root proliferation for "1511". This did not happen in "1601". The low-K tolerant tea genotype "1511" was better at acclimating to K heterogeneity, which was due to a smart root foraging strategy: more roots (especially fine roots) were developed in the K-enriched side; more organic acids were secreted in the low-K side to activate soil K and the root proliferation in the K-enriched side might be due to cellulose decomposition. The present research provides a practical basis for a better understanding of the adaptation strategies of clonal woody plants to soil nutrient availability.
Keywords: F1 hybrid population; cellulose decomposition; low-K tolerant; organic acids; root development.