Cecile Richard (above) says the new method allows scientists to combine favorable root characteristics in new wheat varieties that could improve the plant’s access to water – resulting in better yield stability and productivity under drought conditions.
Cecile Richard (above) says the new method allows scientists to combine favorable root characteristics in new wheat varieties that could improve the plant’s access to water – resulting in better yield stability and productivity under drought conditions.

A University of Queensland scientist has developed a new method to help grain growers become more resilient to expected changes in climate.

Ph.D. candidate Cecile Richard's technique improves root systems, allowing grain crops such as wheat to better adapt to drought conditions – an important challenge for future crop production.

The method uses a system of inexpensive clear-plastic pots, which allows scientists to see through the pot wall and view the below-ground part of the plant.

Scientists at UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation are studying wheat because it is one of the world’s most widely grown cereals, providing a critical supply of protein for much of the global population.

Roots allow plants to access water stored in the soil and are crucial for reliable crop production.

Richard said the new method allowed scientists to combine favourable root characteristics in new wheat varieties that could improve the plant’s access to water – resulting in better yield stability and productivity under drought conditions.

“Even when rain is scarce, water is often still available deep in the soil,” Richard said.

“By increasing the length and number of roots, we can boost access to water and safeguard the crop.

“The roots are growing around the wall of the clear pot and it’s possible to measure different characteristics such as the angle and number of roots, based on images captured at ten days after sowing,” she said.

“These characteristics reflect the root growth pattern displayed by wheat in the field, which is important for the plant to access water.”

Previous techniques used for measuring roots had been time consuming and expensive, Richard said.

“Planting wheat seeds around the rim of a clear-plastic pot to measure root characteristics had never been tried before.

“This method is easy, cheap and rapid,” she said.

According to the climate-change predictions, drought episodes are likely to be more frequent and more severe in some areas. Crop improvement for drought tolerance is a priority for feeding the growing human population.

Richard’s technique was recently published in the open-access journal Plant Methods and could be one of the tools to help boost global wheat production. Her technique is anticipated to speed-up selective breeding for drought-tolerant wheat strains.

“We hope to use the clear-pot technique to rapidly discover the genes responsible for these important root characteristics,” she said.

The research was partially funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation of Australia, including a Ph.D. scholarship for Richard.