Managing water scarcity in European and Chinese cropping systems

Author: Dr Ryan Edge

Rhizosheath, an unfamiliar word with a simple definition. Rhizosheath is simply the soil that gets stuck to the roots of a plant. Below- ground, this rhizosheath is the medium through which the plant interacts with its environment. Think of it like a glove, a very muddy root shaped glove. Bad analogies notwithstanding, scientists have suspected for some time that it’s pretty important and probably has a big impact on how plants grow, but we are not sure why exactly. There is some evidence that a larger rhizosheath may enhance plant drought resistance, by increasing the contact area of the roots with the surrounding soil, making it easier to drink up the limited water in the ground. So, a muddy root shaped glove with straws attached …. This analogy is truly getting out of hand.

Often it’s incredibly difficult to study the interaction between plant roots and soil, as it’s pretty difficult to see what’s happening underground. Despite this, it certainly seems worth the effort. With water scarcity set to become a near global problem in the next decade or two, we urgently need to find new ways of growing crops using less water. Understanding and exploiting these plant soil interactions could be key to doing just that. I’ve recently joined the SHui project, but have been working as a postdoctoral researcher at Lancaster University for almost 2 years. My current experiments (pictured) are investigating whether rhizosheath development of maize plants affects their physiological and biochemical responses to drought stress.


Our colleagues at Fujian Agriculture & Forestry University have recently identified the importance of plant hormone responses in regulating rhizosheath development https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pce.14036

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Previous work at Lancaster has suggested that enhanced rhizosheath development may limit soil erosion  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ejss.13042

Root hairs enhance rhizosheath development in a range of species

(https://academic.oup.com/aob/advance-article/doi/10.1093/aob/mcab029/6149919 )

and Scottish colleagues recently showed the importance of in stabilising crop yield in dry years

https://academic.oup.com/aob/advance-article/doi/10.1093/aob/mcaa181/5920680

Certainly it’s an exciting time for me to be joining the SHui project to work on rhizosheath development.

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