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Get to the Root: Tiny Poplar Roots Extract More Water than Their Larger Counterparts After Drought
Published: September 09, 2017
Posted: November 19, 2019

Researchers link root water uptake to root traits and assess (poor) performance of common models.

The Science
Knowledge of how plant roots respond to stress is based largely on indirect data. Scientists didn't have a good way to see through soil. A team overcame that challenge by using neutron imaging to measure water moving through the soil and being taken up by individual poplar seedling roots after a drought. Smaller diameter roots took up more water (per unit surface area) than bigger roots. Neutron imaging was used to measure soil water movement and water uptake by individual roots in situ.

The Impact
Root water uptake can be linked to characteristic root traits, such as diameter or age. Comparing actual water uptake with modeled water uptake highlights problems with current model assumptions. This work points to the need for new research to understand soil hydraulic properties with and without roots present.

Knowledge of plant root function under stress is largely based on indirect measurements of bulk soil water or nutrient extraction, which limits modeling of root function in land surface models. Neutron radiography, complementary to X-ray imaging, was used to assess in situ water uptake from newer, finer roots and older, thicker roots of a poplar seedling growing in sand. The smaller diameter roots had greater water uptake per unit surface area than the larger diameter roots, ranging from 0.0027 to 0.0116 grams per square centimeter of root surface area per hour. Model analysis based on root-free soil hydraulic properties indicated unreasonably large water fluxes between the vertical soil layers during the first 16 hours after wetting. This finding suggests problems with common soil hydraulic or root surface area modeling approaches, as well as the need for further research into the impacts of roots on soil hydraulic properties.

Biological and Environmental Research Program Managers
Daniel Stover
U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research
Climate and Environmental Sciences Division (SC-23.1)
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

Amy Swain
U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research
Climate and Environmental Sciences Division (SC-23.1) and Biological Systems Science Division (SC-23.2)
Subsurface Biogeochemical Research and Biomolecular Characterization and Imaging Science

Principal Investigator
Jeffrey M. Warren
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The research was funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists, and Office of Science Graduate Student Research program. The research used resources at the High Flux Isotope Reactor, a DOE Office of Science user facility operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Dhiman, I., H. Bilheux, K. DeCarlo, S. L. Painter, L. Santodonato, and J. M. Warren. "Quantifying root water extraction after drought recovery using sub-mm in situ empirical data." Plant and Soil 424, 73 (2018). [DOI:10.1007/s11104-017-3408-5]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling
  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Plant Systems and Feedstocks, Plant-Microbe Interactions
  • Research Area: Structural Biology, Biomolecular Characterization and Imaging
  • Cross-Cutting: Light and Neutron User Facilities

Division: SC-33.1 Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

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