Welcome to the Hidden Half of Plants
Plant roots are highly versatile structures with key functions that enable the plant to survive in the natural environment. They act to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, provide anchoring to the ground, storage for food and nutrients and also allow the plant to explore and colonise new regions of land via vegetative propagation. The shape and structure of the root system as a whole can be complex with both genetic and environmental factors influencing their form. Understanding how plant root system architecture develops is of fundamental importance to our future food security by helping us to breed more efficient varieties of crops that can produce high quality foods in the face of increasing environmental threats such as global climate change and soil degradation.
However, studying plant roots in soil is a challenging task. If you dig a plant from the soil in your garden, you’ll quickly discover that it is a destructive process. Even with extreme care, parts of the roots tend break off or are left in the soil and the overall shape of the root system is often altered as the supporting soil collapses. The opaque nature of the soil has historically presented a barrier to the study of roots in their undisturbed environment which is why they are often called ‘the hidden half’ of plant biology. However, at the University of Nottingham we have used an imaging technique to investigate roots without having to pull them out of the soil. We use X-ray vision!
X-ray Computed Tomography (X-ray CT)
Is a non-invasive imaging technique that can be used to create 3-D images of the root architecture. This allows us to understand how roots grow in the soil and identify specific features of crop roots (e.g. root depth, thickness, angle or number of lateral roots) could be improved to allow more efficient produce more food with limited water or nutrient supply. As the technique is non-destructive it also permits us to collect temporal information on how the root systems develop as they grow (4D imaging).
The Hidden Half website is a directory of plant root systems that have been imaged at The Hounsfield Facility. These X-ray CT images showcase for the first time the beauty, diversity and complexity of plant root systems in their undisturbed soil environment. We will continue to add species to this site as we scan them to highlight the amazing variety in root architecture across the plant kingdom.
To keep up to date with the latest X-ray CT images of plant roots:
Subscribe to the UoN The Hidden Half channel (University of Nottingham) on Youtube
This Project is funded by the BBSRC.
We are very grateful to Thomson and Morgan, Kings and Herbiseed for donating seeds to be scanned for the hidden half.