Plant roots growing through soil typically encounter considerable structural heterogeneity, and local variations in soil dry bulk density. The way the in situ architecture of root systems of different species respond to such heterogeneity is poorly understood due to challenges in visualising roots growing in soil. The objective of this study was to visualise and quantify the impact of abrupt changes in soil bulk density on the roots of three cover crop species with contrasting inherent root morphologies, viz. tillage radish (Raphanus sativus), vetch (Vicia sativa) and black oat (Avena strigosa). The species were grown in soil columns containing a two-layer compaction treatment featuring a 1.2 g cm-3 (uncompacted) zone overlaying a 1.4 g cm-3 (compacted) zone. Three-dimensional visualisations of the root architecture were generated via X-ray computed tomography, and an automated root-segmentation imaging algorithm. Three classes of behaviour were manifest as a result of roots encountering the compacted interface, directly related to the species. For radish, there was switch from a single tap-root to multiple perpendicular roots which penetrated the compacted zone, whilst for vetch primary roots were diverted more horizontally with limited lateral growth at less acute angles. Black oat roots penetrated the compacted zone with no apparent deviation. Smaller root volume, surface area and lateral growth were consistently observed in the compacted zone in comparison to the uncompacted zone across all species. The rapid transition in soil bulk density had a large effect on root morphology that differed greatly between species, with major implications for how these cover crops will modify and interact with soil structure.
Burr-Hersey, J. E., Mooney, S., Bengough, A., Mairhofer, S., & Ritz, K. (2017). Developmental morphology of cover crop species exhibit contrasting behaviour to changes in soil bulk density, revealed by X-ray computed tomography. PLoS ONE, 12(7), 1-18. [e0181872]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181872