Agricultural systems are under economic pressure due to the costs of fuel, water extraction and the unstable prices of produce.  In addition, government pressures to reduce the impact of farming on the environment, implemented through legislation and payments (e.g. CAP), are leading many farmers to explore alternative “sustainable” farming methods.  One example of this is the move to reduced tillage farming.  Reduced tillage changes the biophysical status of soil and under any specific soil profile (created by underlying geology and farming system) there will be an optimum root type / shape / micro-phenotype (e.g. length of root hairs), that will support access to and allow uptake of the maximal required resources for the plant to maximise its output (either as biomass or crop yield).   This “fit” to environment however is temporarily changing both in terms of the dynamics of the soil but also in terms of the plant development.  The challenge therefore is to capture the changes in the soil status, and match the root system this.  To achieve this we are combining phenotyping of soil from farms and field trials, root elongation assays, ex-situ plant phenotyping and plant phenotyping in field.  We have developed a root elongation assay that allows us to get a measure of soil status and how it impacts root elongation (at the seedling stage) giving a measure of soil “rootability” and have used this across Scotland and on 4 different experimental farms throughout several growing season.  This has demonstrated significant “suboptimal” soil status for root growth in many farms and has also given a measure of the changes induced to the soil and “rootability” induced by reduced tillage.   In addition we have shown that crop varieties that are high yielding under high disturbance (standard plough systems) do not necessarily lead to high yields in reduced tillage systems.  Utilising the ex-situ plant phenotyping systems we are investigating the underlying relationships between the soil physical properties and root growth, and also investigating the variety/trait impact on these relationships.

Tracy gained her BSc at Bath University in Applied Biology.  After an eighteen month stint at the Nottingham Arabidopsis Centre, she moved to University College London to study for a PhD in cell to cell communication.  The project involved phenotyping the changes in root cellular patterning caused by carbohydrate based signal molecules.  From there she moved to a Post-Doc in Dundee at the then Scottish Crop Research Institute (now the James Hutton Institute).  The aim of this project was to understand the virus movement into plant roots and also how viruses attempted to evade the plant defences, leading to work on Virus induced silencing.  After transferring department Tracy has worked on plant:soil interactions using a variety of phenotyping methods from the basic root washing techniques through to developing systems for image based phenotyping, including Transparent soil.  Her current work aims to understand how soil structure changes under different agricultural systems and how we can adapt crop roots of new varieties to these systems.

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