Tuesday, October 2, 2012
See-through soil simplifies root imaging
As anyone who knows me will testify, I'm about as fond of gardening as I am of golf. My ideal garden would either be covered over with concrete or short pile synthetic turf, thereby eliminating the need to maintain a lawn or take care of any plants and shrubs.
Despite that fact, I'm always intrigued to read how researchers and scientists across the world are using innovative image processing systems to analyze the behavior of plants.
There's no doubt that by studying the growth of the roots of plants, and determining what factors influence it, scientists might develop hardier variety of crops that might be more resistant to disease and climate change.
In February this year, one team of researchers at the University of Nottingham (Nottingham, UK) was awarded a 3.5m Euro grant to do just that. They plan to image wheat roots in a move that will enable them to select new agricultural varieties that are more efficient at water and nutrient uptake.
To do so, the researchers there plan to use X-ray Micro Computed Tomography to capture images of the shape and branching patterns of roots in soil. Those images will then be fed into the researchers "RooTrak" software which overcomes the problem of distinguishing between roots and other elements in the soil.
Now, however, discerning the roots of the plants from the soil surrounding them could become a lot easier, thanks to a team from the James Hutton Institute (Aberdeen, Scotland) and the University of Abertay (Dundee, Scotland) who have developed a see-through soil based on a synthetic composite known as Nafion.
They claim that the product is very similar to real soil in terms of physical and biological variables, in terms of its water retention, its ability to hold nutrients and its capability for sustaining plant growth.
Lionel Dupuy, a theoretical biologist in the ecological sciences group at the James Hutton Institute, said that the transparent soil could be used by researchers to study the spread and transmission of soil borne pathogens, screen the root systems of a range of genotypes, as well as understand how plants or microbes access nutrients that are heterogeneously distributed in the soil.
While the formulation of the new soil may well have taken the scientists two years to perfect, to me, the real lesson to be learned from its development is the degree of lateral thinking that the researchers employed to solve the problem of how best to capture images of roots in soil.
Rather than just throw complex hardware and software at the problem, they took a completely different approach by creating a new media that may ultimately enable researchers to image the roots of plants using vision systems that are a lot simpler than those that are in use today.
1. Software gets to the root of the problem
A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham (Nottingham, UK) has developed image analysis software that can automatically distinguish plant roots from other materials found in soil.
2. Robotic image-processing system analyzes plant growth
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (Madison, WI, USA) have developed an image-processing system that captures time-lapse images of how plants grow.
3. Cameras get to the root of global warming
Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, TN) are to use a system of minirhizotrons to examine the effects on elevated temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide on the roots of plants in wetlands.