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:
UHV Technologies will develop and demonstrate a low cost, field deployable 3D x-ray computed tomography system that will image total root systems in the field with micron-size resolution and can sample hundreds of plants per cycle. This system is based on UHV's low cost linear x-ray tube technology and sophisticated reconstruction and image segmentation algorithms. The linear x-ray tube technology was originally designed for extremely high throughput scrap aluminum sorting, and when used with an array x-ray detector the system can also produce 2D and 3D imaging of plant roots in the field without the use of heavy, moving gantry systems normally used for trait observation. Maize (corn) was chosen as the crop to study due to its robust root system, well-characterized genetic resources, sequenced genome, and access to existing breeding pipelines with commercial potential. The system will be tested in two environments, at the University of Wisconsin with clay-like soil and at Texas A&M University which features sandy soil. Due to its small size, high resolution and fast imaging of fine roots, low power consumption, large penetration depth (i.e. the ability to see through several feet of soil) and ease of use in the field, the proposed system will increase the speed and efficacy of discovery and deployment of improved crops and systems. These advanced crops can improve soil carbon accumulation and storage, decrease nitrogen oxide emissions, and improve water efficiency. If successful, this new level of imaging will be invaluable to scientists seeking to understand how environmental conditions and plant trait variations contribute to carbon deposition through root development.
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.
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.
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.
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.