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Deep roots are the root of all good

Scientists are developing deep-rooted crops for better uptake of water and nutrients. This will make the plants more robust and better able to cope with the expected effects of climate change on the weather and will ensure better growth and higher yields.

Deep roots help crops acquire water and nutrients. With the aid of new gene technologies scientists are developing crops with deeper roots. Photo: Colourbox

Robust, efficient and high-performance – these are the key words when it comes to developing crops that are adapted to future requirements. To make this happen, scientists from Aarhus University are using advanced tools in a new project that involves three universities and four commercial plant breeders.

The project partners expect to be able to develop wheat, barley, ryegrass and potatoes with 30 percent longer roots. The longer roots are expected to give 20 percent higher yields during drought conditions and a 10 percent larger uptake of nitrogen. With the development of the super-optimised crops, there is also an expectation that the Danish market share of these crops can be increased by 5 percent on a global level.

It will be a challenge to be an agricultural crop in tomorrow’s Denmark. Climate change is expected to lead to an increased frequency and longer periods of drought. Over the last few decades agriculture has also been required to make significant reductions in the use of fertiliser. The crops therefore risk being short of both nutrients and water if crop varieties are not developed that can cope with the climatic rigours of the future. There is a need for crops that utilise water and nutrients more efficiency and also produce higher yields than today.

Breeding for deep roots

A solution to this challenge is to develop crops with deep roots. Deep roots enable crops to maintain their growth even during long periods of drought. Deep roots also enable the plants to capture more nutrients and they also improve soil structure and porosity by leaving deep pores behind in the soil.

The scientists from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University contribute knowledge and expertise in advanced genetic technologies to the project.

- We have the latest knowledge on genetic marker systems and technologies and on plant breeding. This means that we very quickly can implement deep root selection in the breeding systems and get rapid breeding results, says senior researcher Torben Asp from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University. Together with professor Just Jensen from the same department he will identify genes and markers for root growth and develop models for the selection of new varieties based on the concept of Genome Wide Selection (GWS).

GWS enables the selection of breeding material on the basis of the genetic potential of the plant using analysis of plant genetic makeup rather than resorting to the lengthier and more expensive field tests. It involves analysis of the effect of particular DNA sequences on a particular trait – in this case root growth.

- The attribute of root growth has not previously been part of the breeding programme so we expect to have sufficient genetic variation in the varieties we examine for the development of root growth, says professor Just Jensen.

Measurement of root growth poses some practical challenges since roots obviously hide in the dark below ground. The project partners have devised a solution for this. They have developed a facility that allows the simultaneous screening of a large number of plant varieties for the genetic disposition for deeper roots while also studying the link between root growth, drought tolerance and nutrient utilisation in every detail. The screening facility is being built at the University of Copenhagen.

New research venture

The four-year project, RadiMax, is coordinated by the commercial grass and clover breeding company, DLF-Trifolium. The other partners are Aarhus University, University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University, the potato breeders LKF Vandel and the commercial cereal breeders Nordic Seed and Sejet Plant Breeding. The project has a total budget of 21 million DKK and has received a 10 million DKK grant from InnovationsFonden.

RadiMax is the second project of the new Crop Innovation Denmark (CID) research venture, which is a collaboration between Aarhus University, University of Copenhagen, Danish Agriculture and Food Council and the four commercial breeding companies. The purpose of CID is to strengthen breeding-oriented plant research. Erik Østergaard Jensen, head of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Aarhus University, is enthusiastic about the new research venture.

- With CID as the linchpin, it has been possible in record time to reconcile the strong capabilities that exist in the industry and at the universities in the successful application for funds from InnovationsFonden. After not much more than a year, the CID model can be said to be a success and to be a model for other university collaborations with the industry, says a satisfied head of department.

Further information

Senior researcher Torben Asp, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, e-mail: torben.asp@agrsci.dk, telephone: +45 8715 8243

Professor Just Jensen, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, e-mail: just.jensen@agrsci.dk, telephone: +45 8715 7546, Mobile: +45 4082 1680