A field study tested the hypothesis that modern wheat varieties invest a lesser proportion of the total dry matter (root plus shoot) in the root system compared to old varieties. The study was carried out on a duplex soil (sand over clay) at Merredin, Western Australia in a Mediterranean type environment. We also compared the root:shoot dry matter ratios of near-isogenic lines for Rht dwarfing genes.
Root:shoot ratios decreased with crop growth stage and were closely related to the developmental pattern of a variety. All varieties appeared to accumulate more dry matter into shoots after the terminal spikelet stage. For the modern variety Kulin this occurred as early as 55 days after sowing (DAS), but did not occur until 90 DAS in the old variety Purple Straw. For all varieties, root dry matter reached its maximum at anthesis, while shoot dry matter continued to increase till maturity. At anthesis there were no significant differences in shoot dry matter between varieties, but from Purple Straw to Kulin root dry matter and thus root:shoot ratio decreased.
The tall and dwarf isogenic lines had similar developmental and root:shoot dry matter accumulation patterns.
At anthesis, the old variety Purple Straw had significantly higher root dry matter and root length density in the top 40-cm of the profile than modern variety Kulin. There were no varietal differences in rooting depth, water extraction or water use. At maturity about 30% of the total dry matter was invested in the roots among wheat varieties. Grain yield, harvest index (HI) and water use efficiency of grain (WUEgr) increased from old to modern varieties.
The reduced investment of dry matter in the root system and thus the lower root:shoot ratio from early in the growing season may partly explain the increased HI and WUEgr of modern compared to old varieties.
harvest index old and modern wheats root:shoot ratio Rht genes root dry matter root length water use efficiency