Tour boosts plant root research opportunities

Author: | Date: 26 Feb 2018

International collaborations could be a key driver in furthering Australian researchers’ understanding of plant root behavior and development.

This promises to have significant implications for plant productivity across a range of crops, soil types and production environments by enabling researchers to better understand plant root responses to soil conditions, soil nutrient distribution and fertiliser applications.

University of Queensland soil nutrition scientist Professor Mike Bell.

Some of the greatest opportunities for collaboration lie in progressing research related to root system responses to dislocated water and nutrient reserves, root responses to different soil conditions (such as in long term no till systems or with banded organic amendments) and nutrient distribution, and leveraging research techniques and equipment.

That’s the view of University of Queensland soil nutrition scientist Professor Mike Bell who recently returned from a six-week study tour to Germany, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom where he met with some of the world’s leading scientists in the field of plant root development and behaviour.

The study tour was undertaken as part of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Recognising and Rewarding Excellence Award which was presented to Professor Bell during the 2016 GRDC Grains Research Update in Goondiwindi.

Professor Bell said the aim of the trip was to assess the research work being undertaken internationally, the potential relevance to Australian conditions, the research techniques and equipment being used by international scientists and opportunities for collaboration.

“The leading research groups in Europe have taken the study of root systems to another level, with the groups Julich in Germany and at the University of Nottingham (Sutton Bonnington campus) in particular having established superb facilities with a critical mass of staff and students providing a very dynamic and productive working environment,” Professor Bell said.

“However, the groups in Europe and the UK tend to differ to Australia in their approach to determining research priorities.

“In Australia our research priorities are guided by feedback from the production sector and consequently our research is extremely focused, relevant and encourages strong linkages between between the production and research communities.

“In contrast, the research activity at all the facilities we visited seemed to be principally focussed on doing good science and in developing knowledge and techniques for the measurement or integration of such science, rather than working to deliver practical research outcomes to solve industry problems.

“The diversity in approaches offers significant potential for Australian researchers to leverage scientific techniques and equipment available in these UK and European research institutions to improve our understanding of responses to topical research questions here in Australian systems.”

One area that garnered strong interest in cross-continent collaboration was the impact of narrow root angle/deep root development traits on the recovery of surface-stratified nutrients like phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

“There are opportunities for some very focussed collaboration around root system responses to spatially separated water and nutrient reserves, with support and mechanistic studies conducted in the UK and European institutes and validated in clay soils and field environments here in Australia,” Professor Bell said.

He suggested that the UK/European collaboration could be based around the Xray-CT imaging facilities in Nottingham and the MRI facilities at Julich, with different types of studies suited to the different imaging equipment.

“For example, an area where productive collaboration could be developed with the Xray CT facility is in gaining a better understanding of root system responses to heterogeneity in terms of both physical conditions (e.g. compacted layers, or with banded amendments) and distributions of water and nutrients,” he said.

“Examples would be whether stratified reserves of P in topsoil layers limited the expression of narrow root angle/deep root development traits. However, the inability of the Xray-CT to easily differentiate between new and old roots and pieces of organic residue means these studies are best suited to artificial media and potted plants.

“By contrast, interaction between roots and physical conditions in field soils is something that the MRI at Julich would be ideal for investigating given that it can differentiate new/live roots from old/dead roots from previous crops.

“Soil cores collected from long term field studies could be used to investigate issues like the current root response to fertilizer bands applied three, four and five years ago, or to macropores generated by previous rotation species.”

Professor Bell will discuss some of the key learnings from his trip at the GRDC Grains Research Update at Goondiwindi on March 6 and 7, 2018.

For more details on the 2018 Updates, visit the events list on the GRDC website.

Contact Details

For Interviews

Prof Mike Bell, QAAFI, UQ


Sarah Jeffrey, Cox Inall Communications
0418 152 859