Early vertical distribution of roots and its association with drought tolerance in tropical maize

Published in Plant and Soil 377 (1-2295-308, 2014

Grieder, C.; Trachsel, S.;Hund, A.

Background and aims: Selection for deep roots to improve drought tolerance of maize (Zea mays L.) requires presence of genetic variation and suitable screening methods.

Methods: We examined a diverse set of 33 tropical maize inbred lines that were grown in growth columns in the greenhouse up to the 2-, 4-, and 6-leaf stage and in the field in Mexico. To determine length of roots from different depths at high throughput, we tested an approach based on staining roots with methylene blue and measuring the amount of absorbed dye as proxy measure for root length.

Results: Staining provided no advantage over root weights that are much easier to measure and therefore preferable. We found significant genotypic variation for all traits at the 6-leaf stage. For development rates between the 2-leaf and the 6-leaf stage, genotypes only differed for rooting depth and the number of crown roots. Positive correlations of leaf area with root length and rooting depth indicated a common effect of plant vigor. However, leaf area in growth columns was negatively related to grain yield under drought (r = −0.50).

Conclusion: The selection for deeper roots by an increase in plant vigor likely results in a poorer performance under drought conditions. The proportion of deep roots was independent of other traits but showed a low heritability and was not correlated to field performance. An improved screening protocol is proposed to increase throughput and heritability for this trait.

Growth column, Plant and Soil, Rooting depth, Shoot-root relations, tropical maize

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