, Volume 367, Issue 1-2, pp 651-661,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 31 Oct 2012

Do roots mind the gap?



Roots need to be in good contact with the soil to take up water and nutrients. However, when the soil dries and roots shrink, air-filled gaps form at the root-soil interface. Do gaps actually limit the root water uptake, or do they form after water flow in soil is already limiting?


Four white lupins were grown in cylinders of 20 cm height and 8 cm diameter. The dynamics of root and soil structure were recorded using X-ray CT at regular intervals during one drying/wetting cycle. Tensiometers were inserted at 5 and 18 cm depth to measure soil matric potential. Transpiration rate was monitored by continuously weighing the columns and gas exchange measurements.


Transpiration started to decrease at soil matric potential ψ between −5 kPa and −10 kPa. Air-filled gaps appeared along tap roots between ψ = −10 kPa and ψ = −20 kPa. As ψ decreased below −40 kPa, roots further shrank and gaps expanded to 0.1 to 0.35 mm. Gaps around lateral roots were smaller, but a higher resolution is required to estimate their size.


Gaps formed after the transpiration rate decreased. We conclude that gaps are not the cause but a consequence of reduced water availability for lupins.