This article is part of the Research Topic Ecophysiology of root systems-environment interactions


Front. Plant Sci., 05 November 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpls.2013.00442

Root traits contributing to plant productivity under drought

  • 1Water Management Research, United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, Fort Collins, CO, USA
  • 2Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
  • 3National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, Fort Collins, CO, USA
  • 4Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA

Geneticists and breeders are positioned to breed plants with root traits that improve productivity under drought. However, a better understanding of root functional traits and how traits are related to whole plant strategies to increase crop productivity under different drought conditions is needed. Root traits associated with maintaining plant productivity under drought include small fine root diameters, long specific root length, and considerable root length density, especially at depths in soil with available water. In environments with late season water deficits, small xylem diameters in targeted seminal roots save soil water deep in the soil profile for use during crop maturation and result in improved yields. Capacity for deep root growth and large xylem diameters in deep roots may also improve root acquisition of water when ample water at depth is available. Xylem pit anatomy that makes xylem less “leaky” and prone to cavitation warrants further exploration holding promise that such traits may improve plant productivity in water-limited environments without negatively impacting yield under adequate water conditions. Rapid resumption of root growth following soil rewetting may improve plant productivity under episodic drought. Genetic control of many of these traits through breeding appears feasible. Several recent reviews have covered methods for screening root traits but an appreciation for the complexity of root systems (e.g., functional differences between fine and coarse roots) needs to be paired with these methods to successfully identify relevant traits for crop improvement. Screening of root traits at early stages in plant development can proxy traits at mature stages but verification is needed on a case by case basis that traits are linked to increased crop productivity under drought. Examples in lesquerella (Physaria) and rice (Oryza) show approaches to phenotyping of root traits and current understanding of root trait genetics for breeding.

Keywords: root morphology, root architecture, hydraulic conductance, hydraulic conductivity, QTL, drought tolerance, MAS

Citation: Comas LH, Becker SR, Cruz VMV, Byrne PF and Dierig DA (2013) Root traits contributing to plant productivity under drought. Front. Plant Sci. 4:442. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2013.00442

Received: 11 July 2013; Accepted: 15 October 2013;
Published online: 05 November 2013.

Edited by:

Omer Falik, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Reviewed by:

Ivika Ostonen, University of Tartu, Estonia
John Passioura, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia

Copyright © 2013 Comas, Becker, Cruz, Byrne and Dierig. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Louise H. Comas, Water Management Research, United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, 2150 Centre Avenue, Building D, Suite 320, Fort Collins, CO 80526, USA e-mail:

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