Researchers receive grant to develop deeper crop roots

Penn State News
January 17, 2017
By Penn State News
Researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences have received a $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, to design a low-cost, integrated system that can identify and screen for high-yielding, deeper-rooted crops.

The interdisciplinary team, led by Jonathan Lynch, distinguished professor of plant nutrition, will combine a suite of technologies designed to identify phenotypes and genes related to desirable root traits, with the goal of enhancing the breeding of crop varieties better adapted for nitrogen and water acquisition and carbon sequestration.

The project is part of ARPA-E's Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration, or ROOTS, program, which is aimed at developing crops that enable a 50 percent increase in carbon deposition depth and accumulation, while also reducing nitrous oxide emissions by 50 percent and increasing water productivity by 25 percent.

The ROOTS program website explains that while advances in technology have resulted in a tenfold increase in crop productivity over the past century, soil quality has declined, leading to a soil carbon debt equivalent to 65 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This soil carbon debt increases the need for costly nitrogen fertilizer, which has become the primary source of emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. The soil carbon debt also impacts crop water use, increasing susceptibility to drought stress, which threatens future productivity.

Given the scale of domestic and global agriculture, there is tremendous potential to reverse these trends by harnessing the photosynthetic bridge between atmospheric carbon, plants, microbes and soil. Advanced root systems that increase soil organic matter can improve soil structure, fertilizer use efficiency, water productivity, crop yield and climate resilience, while mitigating topsoil erosion – all of which provide near-term and sustained economic value. | READ MORE

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