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Biogeosciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

  04 May 2020

04 May 2020

Review status
A revised version of this preprint is currently under review for the journal BG.

Root uptake under mismatched distributions of water and nutrients in the root zone

Jing Yan1, Nathaniel A. Bogie2, and Teamrat Ghezzehei1 Jing Yan et al.
  • 1Life and Environmental Sciences Department, University of California, Merced, CA 95343, USA
  • 2Geology Department, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA 95192, USA

Abstract. Most plants derive their water and nutrient needs from soils, where the resources are often scarce, patchy, and ephemeral. In natural environments, it is not uncommon for plant roots to encounter mismatched patches of water-rich and nutrient-rich regions. Such an uneven distribution of resources necessitates plants to rely on strategies that allow them to explore and acquire nutrients from relatively dry patches. We conducted a laboratory study to provide a mechanistic understanding of the biophysical factors that enable this adaptation. We grew plants in split-root pots that permitted precisely controlled spatial distributions of resources. The results demonstrated that spatial mismatch of water and nutrient availability does not cost plant productivity compared to matched distributions. Specifically, we showed that nutrient uptake is not reduced by overall soil dryness, provided that the whole plant has access to sufficient water elsewhere in the root zone. Essential strategies include extensive root proliferation towards nutrient-rich dry soil patches that allows rapid nutrient capture from brief pulses. Using high-frequency water potential measurements, we also observed nocturnal water release by roots that inhabit dry and nutrient-rich soil patches. Soil water potential gradient is the primary driver of this transfer of water from wet to dry soil parts of the root zone, which is commonly known as hydraulic redistribution (HR). The occurrence of HR prevents the soil drying from approaching the permanent wilting point, and thus supports root functions and enhance nutrient availability. Our results indicate that roots facilitate HR by increasing root-hair density and length and deposition of organic coatings that alter water retention. Therefore, we conclude that biologically-controlled root adaptation involves multiple strategies that compensate for nutrient acquisition under mismatched resource distributions. Based on our findings, we proposed a nature-inspired nutrient management strategy for significantly curtailing water pollution from intensive agricultural systems.

Jing Yan et al.

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Jing Yan et al.


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Short summary
An uneven supply of water and nutrients in soils often drives how plants behave. We observed that plants extract all their required nutrients from dry soil patches in sufficient quantity, provided adequate water is available elsewhere in the root zone. Roots in nutrient-rich dry patches facilitate the nutrient acquisition by extensive growth, water release, and modifying water retention in their immediate environment. The findings are valuable in managing nutrient losses in agricultural systems.
An uneven supply of water and nutrients in soils often drives how plants behave. We observed...