Articles | Volume 14, issue 4
Biogeosciences, 14, 921–939, 2017
Biogeosciences, 14, 921–939, 2017

Research article 28 Feb 2017

Research article | 28 Feb 2017

Multi-frequency electrical impedance tomography as a non-invasive tool to characterize and monitor crop root systems

Maximilian Weigand and Andreas Kemna Maximilian Weigand and Andreas Kemna
  • Department of Geophysics, University of Bonn, Meckenheimer Allee 176, 53115 Bonn, Germany

Abstract. A better understanding of root–soil interactions and associated processes is essential in achieving progress in crop breeding and management, prompting the need for high-resolution and non-destructive characterization methods. To date, such methods are still lacking or restricted by technical constraints, in particular the charactization and monitoring of root growth and function in the field. A promising technique in this respect is electrical impedance tomography (EIT), which utilizes low-frequency (< 1 kHz)- electrical conduction- and polarization properties in an imaging framework. It is well established that cells and cell clusters exhibit an electrical polarization response in alternating electric-current fields due to electrical double layers which form at cell membranes. This double layer is directly related to the electrical surface properties of the membrane, which in turn are influenced by nutrient dynamics (fluxes and concentrations on both sides of the membranes). Therefore, it can be assumed that the electrical polarization properties of roots are inherently related to ion uptake and translocation processes in the root systems. We hereby propose broadband (mHz to hundreds of Hz) multi-frequency EIT as a non-invasive methodological approach for the monitoring and physiological, i.e., functional, characterization of crop root systems. The approach combines the spatial-resolution capability of an imaging method with the diagnostic potential of electrical-impedance spectroscopy. The capability of multi-frequency EIT to characterize and monitor crop root systems was investigated in a rhizotron laboratory experiment, in which the root system of oilseed plants was monitored in a water–filled rhizotron, that is, in a nutrient-deprived environment. We found a low-frequency polarization response of the root system, which enabled the successful delineation of its spatial extension. The magnitude of the overall polarization response decreased along with the physiological decay of the root system due to the stress situation. Spectral polarization parameters, as derived from a pixel-based Debye decomposition analysis of the multi-frequency imaging results, reveal systematic changes in the spatial and spectral electrical response of the root system. In particular, quantified mean relaxation times (of the order of 10 ms) indicate changes in the length scales on which the polarization processes took place in the root system, as a response to the prolonged induced stress situation. Our results demonstrate that broadband EIT is a capable, non-invasive method to image root system extension as well as to monitor changes associated with the root physiological processes. Given its applicability on both laboratory and field scales, our results suggest an enormous potential of the method for the structural and functional imaging of root systems for various applications. This particularly holds for the field scale, where corresponding methods are highly desired but to date are lacking.

Short summary
Root systems are essential in nutrient uptake and translocation, but are difficult to characterize non-invasively with existing methods. We propose electrical impedance tomography (EIT) as a new tool for the imaging and monitoring of crop root systems. In a laboratory experiment we demonstrate the capability of the method to capture physiological responses of root systems with high spatial and temporal resolution. We conclude that EIT is a promising functional imaging technique for crop roots.
Final-revised paper