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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

All-text version of "Know Your Roots!"

Know Your Roots!

Ever look at a plant and wonder what its roots look like?

Plant roots have different shapes and sizes. Some roots burrow straight down into the soil. Others scatter web-like tentacles.

Roots keep plants alive by taking water and nutrients from the soil. The shape of a root and how deep it goes can help the plant survive threats like droughts and heat. To see roots without digging them up, scientists grow plants in transparent gels. With help from computers and digital photography, they also have developed ways to take digital pictures of roots growing in the gels and record how they grow and take shape.

Leon V. Kochian, director of the ARS Robert W. Holley Center for Agriculture and Health in Ithaca, New York, and Randy Clark, a Cornell University student, have developed a new system that uses gels and digital photography to compare roots of different plants and learn more about root systems. It’s called the “RootReader3D.”

To test RootReader3D, they grew two varieties of rice in transparent gels, put the plants on a rotating stage and took digital pictures of the roots as they rotated slowly.  They found the RootReader3D system was able to show tiny differences between the root systems in terms of their “bushiness,” how the roots were distributed and their overall depth and shape.

The researchers hope the RootReader3D will help them make more discoveries and lead to crops with roots that are better equipped to handle drought, heat, poor soil quality and other threatening conditions.

By Dennis O'Brien, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 11/15/2013
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