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The Root of the Matter

The Roots Lab continues to push to find genotypes that could thrive in low-nutrient conditions and resist drought and ultimately help relieve world hunger.

Computer visualization of roots

A computer visualization of a plant root system.

A few years ago we took readers to the South African bushveld with  “Letters from the Bushveld” and “From Roots to Fruits” to highlight root research at the Ukulima Root Biology Center. 

Researchers were doing field experiments on maize and bean plants to find genotypes that could thrive in low-nutrient conditions and resist drought. That work has continued with success. 

“We’re finding lots of cool stuff,” says Jonathan Lynch, professor of plant nutrition and head of the college’s Roots Lab. “For example, we know that air space within roots helps them grow deeper, and that’s important for catching nitrogen in the soil. Air space is also cheaper than cells. In poor soil and drought conditions, if roots can grow deeper, plants will do better. So we know the traits we’re looking for—we want roots that are steep, cheap, and deep—and we’re tracking down how they work so we can tell breeders how to build better crops.” 

Building better crops is critical for poor African nations such as Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. “People in these countries depend on their crops,” Lynch says. “Imagine if your entire source of food and income was the plants you grew. And you don’t have fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation. You put seeds in the ground and you hope it rains. So if you are growing your food and selling what little you have left over for your income, your crop productivity is directly related to your hunger, your kids’ development, whether you can afford to send your kids to school. 

“Right now, maize growth in these countries averages only 5 percent of potential yield,” he continues. “Even if we could increase that to 10 percent, that’s doubling the yield—and we’re still at only 10 percent. There’s so much room to improve. If families can grow a little more food, and have a little bit more left over to sell, they can begin to climb out of that poverty trap. That’s what we’re working toward.” The Ukulima Root Biology Center, established with funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, was initiated as a five-year project and is now in its fourth year. Crop planting is now under way at a new research farm in Arizona—also sponsored by the Buffett Foundation. 

For more information about the root scientists’ work, visit the Roots Lab website.