Deep rooting has been identified as strategy for desiccation avoidance in natural vegetation as well as in crops like rice and sorghum. The objectives of this study were to determine root morphology and water uptake of four inbred lines of tropical maize (Zea mays L.) differing in their adaptation to drought. The specific questions were i) if drought tolerance was related to the vertical distribution of the roots, ii) whether root distribution was adaptive or constitutive, and iii) whether it affected water extraction, water status, and water use efficiency (WUE) of the plant. In the main experiment, seedlings were grown to the V5 stage in growth columns (0.80 m high) under well-watered (WW) and water-stressed (WS) conditions. The depth above which 95% of all roots were located (D95) was used to estimate rooting depth. It was generally greater for CML444 and Ac7729/TZSRW (P2) compared to SC-Malawi and Ac7643 (P1). The latter had more lateral roots, mainly in the upper part of the soil column. The increase in D95 was accompanied by increases in transpiration, shoot dry weight, stomatal conductance and relative water content without adverse effects on the WUE. Differences in the morphology were confirmed in the V8 stage in large boxes: CML444 with thicker (0.14 mm) and longer (0.32 m) crown roots compared to SC-Malawi. Deep rooting, drought sensitive P2 showed markedly reduced WUE, likely due to an inefficient photosynthesis. The data suggest that a combination of high WUE and sufficient water acquisition by a deep root system can increase drought tolerance.
Plant and Soil (2009) 318 (1-2) 311-325 [doi: 10.1007/s11104-008-9843-6]