Background and aims: Previous laboratory studies have suggested selection for root hair traits in future crop breeding to improve resource use efficiency and stress tolerance. However, data on the interplay between root hairs and open-field systems, under contrasting soils and climate conditions, are limited. As such, this study aims to experimentally elucidate some of the impacts that root hairs have on plant performance on a field scale.
Methods: A field experiment was set up in Scotland for two consecutive years, under contrasting climate conditions and different soil textures (i.e. clay loam vs. sandy loam). Five barley (Hordeum vulgare) genotypes exhibiting variation in root hair length and density were used in the study. Root hair length, density and rhizosheath weight were measured at several growth stages, as well as shoot biomass, plant water status, shoot phosphorus (P) accumulation and grain yield.
Key results: Measurements of root hair density, length and its correlation with rhizosheath weight highlighted trait robustness in the field under variable environmental conditions, although significant variations were found between soil textures as the growing season progressed. Root hairs did not confer a notable advantage to barley under optimal conditions, but under soil water deficit root hairs enhanced plant water status and stress tolerance resulting in less negative leaf water potential and lower leaf abscisic acid concentration, while promoting shoot P accumulation. Furthermore, the presence of root hairs did not decrease yield under optimal conditions, while root hairs enhanced yield stability under drought.
Conclusions: Selecting for beneficial root hair traits can enhance yield stability without diminishing yield potential, overcoming the breeder's dilemma of trying to simultaneously enhance both productivity and resilience. Therefore, the maintenance or enhancement of root hairs can represent a key trait for breeding the next generation of crops for improved drought tolerance in relation to climate change.
- agricultural sustainability
- drought tolerance
- grain yield
- Hordeum vulgare
- plant water status
- root hairs
- root traits
- soil texture