Better crops from the roots up

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — By altering root growth, scientists believe they are a step closer to breeding hardier crops that are more adaptable to environmental conditions and better able to fend off parasites.

Plant root biology is essential for healthy plant growth and, while the so-called hidden half of the plant has often been overlooked, its importance is becoming increasingly recognized by scientists.

Despite this, particularly in view of the critical role plants play in global food security, improving plant growth by modulating the biological architecture of root systems remains largely unexplored.


“The world’s population is increasing, and a new green revolution is even more pressing to deliver global food security,” says Ive De Smet, a fellow in the division of plant and crop science at the University of Nottingham.

“To achieve this, optimizing the root system of plants is essential and these recent results will contribute significantly to our goal of improving crop growth and yield under varying environmental conditions.”

For the new study, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers were able to alter root growth in the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, by modulating levels of the regulatory protein, transcription factor WRKY23. They then analyzed the effects on root development and used chemical profiling to demonstrate that this key factor controls the biosynthesis of important metabolites called flavonols.

Altered levels of flavonols affected the distribution of auxin, a plant hormone controlling many aspects of development, which resulted in impaired root growth.

In addition, WRKY23 was previously found to play a role in the way plants interact with types of nematode parasites, which could lead to further research into how to prevent attacks from the creatures during the early stages of plant growth.

The findings can now be used to produce new economically viable plant lines with improved root systems that are better able to resist environmental changes that can lead to plant damage or poor yield.

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