Topsoil foraging – an architectural adaptation of plants to low phosphorus availability
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Low phosphorus availability is a primary constraint to plant productivity in many natural and agricultural ecosystems. Plants display a wide array of adaptive responses to low phosphorus availability that generally serve to enhance phosphorus mobility in the soil and increase its uptake. One set of adaptive responses is the alteration of root architecture to increase phosphorus acquisition from the soil at minimum metabolic cost. In a series of studies with the common bean, work in our laboratory has shown that architectural traits that enhance topsoil foraging appear to be particularly important for genotypic adaptation to low phosphorus soils (‘phosphorus efficiency’). In particular, the gravitropic trajectory of basal roots, adventitious rooting, the dispersion of lateral roots, and the plasticity of these processes in response to phosphorus availability contribute to phosphorus efficiency in this species. These traits enhance the exploration and exploitation of shallow soil horizons, where phosphorus availability is greatest in many soils. Studies with computer models of root architecture show that root systems with enhanced topsoil foraging acquire phosphorus more efficiently than others of equivalent size. Comparisons of contrasting genotypes in controlled environments and in the field show that plants with better topsoil foraging have superior phosphorus acquisition and growth in low phosphorus soils. It appears that many architectural responses to phosphorus stress may be mediated by the plant hormone ethylene. Genetic mapping of these traits shows that they are quantitatively inherited but can be tagged with QTLs that can be used in plant breeding programs. New crop genotypes incorporating these traits have substantially improved yield in low phosphorus soils, and are being deployed in Africa and Latin America.
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