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New techniques in soil analysis aim to boost UK’s crop production

Published: 8 November 2011

Researchers in Southampton and Nottingham can combine new techniques to accurately predict how much water roots take up from the soil, thanks to funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The £740,000 grant will also be used to evaluate the performance of different wheat root patterns.

Up until now soil function has only been able to be observed at field level but, by joining new techniques in X-ray scanning and mathematical modelling, researchers at the University of Southampton and The University of Nottingham are hoping to be able to examine what happens to individual soil particles, how they can be manipulated and how these findings can then be scaled up to a larger level.

Principal investigator Dr Tiina Roose, from the University of Southampton, says: “We can manipulate soil systems on a large scale and observe what happens and this is useful, but it offers no scope to truly predict how the system would respond to modification.

“This is important because we have the potential and, most likely the future need, to manipulate the underlying processes at soil particle level to find out if our crops should grow deeper, if a change in root architecture would be useful, to what extent roots can adapt to stresses in the soil physical environment and what management-induced changes to soil structure are desirable for future environments.”

The team will be using state-of-the-art equipment in the recently-launched µ-VIS X-ray Computed Tomography (CT) Centre, at the University of Southampton, and CT scanners at the University of Nottingham, to examine soil and root micro-structures. They will then use a mathematical theory to accurately scale up these processes.

By integrating these two new methods for the first time, researchers will be able to consider water movement in soils and its uptake by wheat, an important crop for UK agriculture.

Tiina adds: “We will measure the micro-structure of soils and investigate how water passes through these soils to the roots of plants.

“We will then use this information to develop and test theoretical models of water movement and uptake, and use these to evaluate the performance of different wheat root architectures.”

The team hopes that the generic methodology they will be using in this project will not only be applicable for wheat but also for a wide range of agricultural crops.

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