, Volume 191, Issue 2, pp 249-258

Drought-induced changes in soil contact and hydraulic conductivity for roots of Opuntia ficus-indica with and without rhizosheaths

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Abstract

Water movement between roots and soil can be limited by incomplete root–soil contact, such as that caused by air gaps due to root shrinkage, and can also be influenced by rhizosheaths, composed of soil particles bound together by root exudates and root hairs. The possible occurrence of air gaps between the roots and the soil and their consequences for the hydraulic conductivity of the root–soil pathway were therefore investigated for the cactus t Opuntia ficus-indica, which has two distinct root regions: a younger, distal region where rhizosheaths occur, and an older, proximal region where roots are bare. Resin-embedded sections of roots in soil were examined microscopically to determine root–soil contact for container-grown plants kept moist for 21 days, kept moist and vibrated to eliminate air gaps, droughted for 21 days, or droughted and vibrated. During drought, roots shrank radially by 30% and root–soil contact in the bare root region of nonvibrated containers was reduced from 81% to 31%. For the sheathed region, the hydraulic conductivity of the rhizosheath was the least limiting factor and the root hydraulic conductivity was the most limiting; for the bare root region, the hydraulic conductivity of the soil was the least limiting factor and the hydraulic conductivity of the root–soil air gap was the most limiting. The rhizosheath, by virtually eliminating root–soil air gaps, facilitated water uptake in moist soil. In the bare root region, the extremely low hydraulic conductivity of the root–soil air gap during drought helped limit water loss from roots to a drier soil.