Watching Plant Roots Grow Underground with Fiber Optics

Greg Howard
2nd March, 2024

Watching Plant Roots Grow Underground with Fiber Optics

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • Researchers in Japan developed a device that non-invasively tracks root growth in real-time
  • The device uses a fiber-optic sensor to detect tiny changes in soil, indicating root activity
  • It proved as effective as X-ray imaging, offering detailed root system monitoring without digging
Understanding the intricate details of plant root systems is crucial for advancing agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. The roots, often hidden from view by layers of soil, are vital for water and nutrient uptake, and they play a significant role in carbon sequestration. Despite their importance, studying roots in their natural environment is a complex task. A recent breakthrough by researchers at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization[1] has the potential to revolutionize the way we monitor and understand these hidden plant structures. The problem faced by scientists and farmers alike is that roots, being underground, are hard to study without disturbing the plant. Traditional methods are often destructive, time-consuming, and limited in the information they can provide. This is where the innovative device developed by the research team comes into play. It uses a distributed fiber-optic sensor, wrapped in a polymer film and arranged in a spiral pattern around the plant's root zone. This setup is sensitive enough to detect the penetration of objects as small as submillimeter in diameter within the soil, which is a significant improvement over previous underground monitoring techniques. The device's advanced sensitivity allows for the real-time, automated tracking of root development. This means researchers can now observe how roots grow and respond to their environment without the need for excavation. The ability to monitor roots so closely and accurately has wide-reaching implications. It could lead to genetically engineered crops with root systems that are more efficient in water and nutrient uptake, or better at storing carbon, addressing critical issues such as food security and climate change. To validate their device, the researchers created computational models to visualize the roots of different crops, including radish and rice. They then compared these visualizations with those obtained from X-ray computed tomography, a sophisticated imaging technique that can see through soil. The results showed that the fiber-optic sensor provided comparable, if not superior, information, highlighting its potential as a non-invasive tool for root phenotyping. The significance of this study is further underscored by previous research. For example, a platform using close-range photogrammetry was developed to create 3D models of cassava root crowns for phenotypic analysis[2]. While effective, this method is limited to the parts of the root system that are relatively close to the surface and does not offer real-time data. Similarly, the GROWSCREEN-Rhizo system allowed for automatic imaging of roots in soil-filled rhizotrons[3], but was restricted to certain plant sizes and did not provide the continuous monitoring capabilities of the fiber-optic sensor. Furthermore, understanding the genetic control of root architecture in response to environmental stressors, as studied in spring barley[4], can be greatly enhanced by the ability to continuously monitor roots in their natural soil environment. The new device could provide unprecedented insights into how different genotypes of crops adapt their root systems under various conditions, including water-deficit stress. The round monolith method for rapid root phenotyping in rice[5] demonstrated the need for efficient root sampling from a constant soil volume. The fiber-optic sensor technology could complement such methods by providing a way to monitor root growth patterns over time without the need for repeated sampling. In conclusion, the development of the fiber-optic sensor device by the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization marks a significant leap forward in root phenotyping technology. Its high spatiotemporal resolution and non-invasive nature allow for a deeper understanding of root systems, which is essential for breeding crops that are more resilient and environmentally friendly. This tool, alongside computational models, opens up new possibilities for agricultural research and has the potential to contribute substantially to global efforts in food production and climate change mitigation.

BiotechPlant ScienceAgriculture


Main Study

1) Non-destructive real-time monitoring of underground root development with distributed fiber optic sensing.

Published 29th February, 2024

Related Studies

2) Cassava root crown phenotyping using three-dimension (3D) multi-view stereo reconstruction.

3) GROWSCREEN-Rhizo is a novel phenotyping robot enabling simultaneous measurements of root and shoot growth for plants grown in soil-filled rhizotrons.

4) Genetic components of root architecture and anatomy adjustments to water-deficit stress in spring barley.

5) Backhoe-assisted monolith method for plant root phenotyping under upland conditions.

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