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Magnetic Resonance Imaging for Root Growth

Texas A&M University

A Field-Deployable Magnetic Resonance Imaging Rhizotron for Modeling and Enhancing Root Growth and Biogeochemical Function

Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$4,400,000
Location: 
College Station, TX
Project Term: 
06/30/2017 to 06/29/2020
Project Status: 
ACTIVE
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 

Plants capture atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) using photosynthesis, and transfer the carbon to the soil through their roots. Soil organic matter, which is primarily composed of carbon, is a key determinant of soil's overall quality. Even though crop productivity has increased significantly over the past century, soil quality and levels of topsoil have declined during this period. Low levels of soil organic matter affect a plant's productivity, leading to increased fertilizer and water use. Automated tools and methods to accelerate the process of measuring root and soil characteristics and the creation of advanced algorithms for analyzing data can accelerate the development of field crops with deeper and more extensive root systems. Crops with these root systems could increase the amount of carbon stored in soils, leading to improved soil structure, fertilizer use efficiency, water productivity, and crop yield, as well as reduced topsoil erosion. If deployed at scale, these improved crops could passively sequester significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere that otherwise cannot be economically captured.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

Texas A&M AgriLife Research will develop low field magnetic resonance imaging (LF-MRI) instrumentation that can image intact soil-root systems. The system will measure root biomass, architecture, 3D mass distribution, and growth rate, and could be used for selection of ideal plant characteristics based on these root metrics. It will also have the ability to three-dimensionally image soil water content, a key property that drives root growth and exploration. Operating much like a MRI used in a medical setting, the system can function in the field without damaging plants, unlike traditional methods such as trenching, soil coring, and root excavation. The team will test two different approaches: an in-ground system shaped like a cylinder that can be inserted into the soil to surround the roots; and a coil device that can be deployed on the soil surface around the plant stem. If successful, these systems can help scientists better understand the root-water-soil interactions that drive processes such as nutrient uptake by crops, water use, and carbon management. This new information is crucial for the development of plants optimized for carbon sequestration without sacrificing economic yield. The project also aims to help develop ideal energy sorghum possessing high root growth rates, roots with more vertical angles, and roots that are more drought resistant and proliferate under water limiting conditions.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, developments made under the ROOTS program will produce crops that will greatly increase carbon uptake in soil, helping to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, decrease nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, and improve agricultural productivity.

Security: 

America's soils are a strategic asset critical to national food and energy security. Improving the quality of soil in America's cropland will enable increased and more efficient production of feedstocks for food, feed, and fuel.

Environment: 

Increased organic matter in soil will help reduce fertilizer use, increase water productivity, reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, and passively sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Economy: 

Healthy soil is foundational to the American economy and global trade. Increasing crop productivity will make American farmers more competitive and contribute to U.S. leadership in an emerging bio-economy.

Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Joe Cornelius
Project Contact: 
Dr. Cristine Morgan
Partners
ABQMR Innovations
Harvard College/Massachusetts General Hospital
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Release Date: 
12/15/2016