Most of the effort of crop breeding has focused on the expression of aboveground traits with the goals of increasing yield and disease resistance, decreasing height in grains, and improvement of nutritional qualities. The role of roots in supporting these goals has been largely ignored. With the increasing need to produce more food, feed, fiber, and fuel on less land and with fewer inputs, the next advance in plant breeding must include greater consideration of roots. Root traits are an untapped source of phenotypic variation that will prove essential for breeders working to increase yields and the provisioning of ecosystem services. Roots are dynamic, and their structure and the composition of metabolites introduced to the rhizosphere change as the plant develops and in response to environmental, biotic, and edaphic factors. The assessment of physical qualities of root system architecture will allow breeding for desired root placement in the soil profile, such as deeper roots in no-till production systems plagued with drought or shallow roots systems for accessing nutrients. Combining the assessment of physical characteristics with chemical traits, including enzymes and organic acid production, will provide a better understanding of biogeochemical mechanisms by which roots acquire resources. Lastly, information on the structural and elemental composition of the roots will help better predict root decomposition, their contribution to soil organic carbon pools, and the subsequent benefits provided to the following crop. Breeding can no longer continue with a narrow focus on aboveground traits, and breeding for belowground traits cannot only focus on root system architecture. Incorporation of root biogeochemical traits into breeding will permit the creation of germplasm with the required traits to meet production needs in a variety of soil types and projected climate scenarios.
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This research was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Grant 2016-67019-25281.
McGrail, Rebecca K.; Van Sanford, David A.; and McNear, David H. Jr., "Trait-Based Root Phenotyping as a Necessary Tool for Crop Selection and Improvement" (2020). Plant and Soil Sciences Faculty Publications. 147.