Friday 11 May 2012

Improved roots will boost crops

An article in Science Alert reports that University of Western Australia researchers say that the "next frontier" of agricultural science is understanding the root system and function of crop plants to significantly increase grain production, keep farms viable and help continue to feed the world despite the onset of increasing drought and climate change. Scientists at the university have experimented with lupin roots to try to improve the water use and nutrient uptake of narrow-leaf lupin varieties that account for half of all grain legumes produced in Australia - an industry worth more than $600 million a year.

The study, published in the international journal Plant and Soil, warned that Australian grain producers faced increasing threats from poor local soils, harsh growing conditions and declining, less-predictable rainfall due to climate change. To help address this, a team led by UWA-based Chief Investigators Winthrop Professor Zed Rengel and Winthrop Professor Kadambot Siddique used new screening techniques and advanced computer modelling to understand lupin root systems variability.

Climate change and increased risk of drought made it imperative for Australia to develop new ways to make crops more water and nutrient-efficient. Roots efficient in acquiring soil resources (water and nutrients) are fundamental to growing high-yielding crops in Australian soils, but have been largely ignored by scientists - "it's the next frontier of agricultural science", said Professor Siddique, Director of the university’s Institute of Agriculture.

"Traditional crop root systems are poorly suited to the harsh environmental conditions of Australian agriculture. Their inefficient use of water and fertilisers not only reduces yields but also increases salinity and algal blooms (eutrophication) in waterways due to excessive nutrient run-off. Use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers to grow crops in water-limited, nutrient-poor Australian soils is a big cost that will increase for grain producers as energy prices rise and rock phosphate stocks dwindle.”

"Improved and more efficient root capture systems may cut costs and substantially increase Australian grain harvest yields, with the added benefit that better nitrogen uptake may also significantly improve grain quality."

The UWA-based study - in collaboration with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Food, Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research and US Pennsylvania State University - was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant and paves the way for further similar research in wheat and barley.

Read the full article here and the study here.