Seeing in the dark—how plant roots perceive water through growth | 1/10/2018 | Staff
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Without eyes, ears, or a central nervous system, plants can perceive the direction of environmental cues and respond to ensure their survival.

For example, roots need to extend through the maze of nooks and crannies in the soil toward sources of water and nutrients. The various ways that plants guide this branching to take advantage of their environment is of great interest to scientists and of potential use by farmers in need of crops that produce more food with fewer resources.

Carnegie - Stanford - University - Biologist - José

Carnegie and Stanford University biologist José Dinneny has spent years studying how root growth responds to water, particularly through a phenomenon called hydropatterning, which allows plants to optimize root branching to maximize water uptake.

Just like how plants branch out above ground to gain access to sunlight, plant roots form a branching underground network, with lateral roots growing out from a main axis. The structure of these root system networks must be regulated in ways that optimize soil exploration, while limiting expansion into water-poor regions.

Plants - Water—but - Mechanism - Plant - Signal

"We knew plants were doing this—branching toward water—but not the mechanism of how the plant was perceiving and reacting to this environmental signal," Dinneny explained.

He and Stanford graduate student Neil Robbins II set out to determine whether a plant root's observed ability to encourage branching toward moisture and discourage branching into dry soil is localized to any part of the root, or is shared by the whole root structure.

Root - Water - Clues - Plant - Task

"By understanding where the root perceives water we might get clues as to how the plant performs this remarkable task," says Dinneny.

Using both fine-scale microdissection and mathematical modeling approaches, they found that the tip of the root where cell expansion drives growth is uniquely able to perceive and respond to moisture cues by shaping the direction in which the root branches out into the soil. The use of mathematical...
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