Root Architecture Modelling in Heterogeneous Soils

How do root systems respond to environmental stresses?

Since the 1950s crops were bred for high-input agroecosystems which led to extensive use of fertilizers. This resulted in environmental problems and high production costs. Nowadays, breeding crops with high plant productivity for low-input agroecosystems with a focus on sustainability and resource efficiency becomes increasingly important. In such breeding programs the root architecture is crucial for the selection process, since architectural, morphological, anatomical, and physiological root traits influence plant nutrient and water uptake. A deeper knowledge of the growing root system and its dynamic rhizosphere will enable us to determine suitable root system traits as selection criteria for plant breeding.


In our work we analyse water and phosphate uptake under different environmental stresses. These major inputs for crop productivity will gain even more significance considering a higher frequencies of droughts due to climate change and increased fertilizer costs due to an upcoming phosphate crisis. We are interested in the following research questions: (1) In which way does the root system adapt to water and phosphate availability, and how can root architecture models be extended to implement integral root system responses? (2) How can this model be integrated into the soil environment, e.g. how can we create appropriate sink terms? (3) Can root uptake and resource efficiency be understood as an optimization process?

The work is conducted in close collaboration between applied mathematicians and experts for rhizosphere processes, water management and plant breeding. Mathematical modelling enhances the general understanding of rhizosphere processes, including root growth dynamics. We systematically analyse root traits in heterogeneous soil environments using mathematical modelling supported by experimental observations. Model development starts at a single root scale where relevant processes are described in a mechanistic way using partial differential equations. In a second step root system models are developed from the single root scale using up-scaling techniques such as homogenisation and averaging.

We facilitate the integration of methods from computational science into root research, and our findings will be beneficial for managing plant nutrition and irrigation. Furthermore, project results encourage the use of root architecture traits in future crop improvement efforts.




Daniel Leitner is recipient of an APART-fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences at the Computational Science Center, University of Vienna. The project “The roots of drought resistance” is financially supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), Project No. P 25190-B16.

Project Partners


Computational Science Center
Faculty of Mathematics
University of Vienna

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