Pennsylvania State University Root Biology Center aims to boost crop yields around the globe

A professor of horticulture at Penn State, Lynch believes that understanding plant root architecture may be the key to producing enough food to feed the world’s expanding population. The goal is the generation of new crop varieties and cropping systems adapted to the stressful soils of eastern and southern Africa.

Correlated with genetic information, root traits can be harnessed to create higher-yield varieties of important crops like corn, bean and soybean, he said. “We can then give farmers seeds which will do well in poor soils, without fertilizer and irrigation.”

In the developed world, Lynch added, stronger roots can have economic and environmental benefits. “The biggest cost in growing corn is nitrogen fertilizer,” he said. “Nitrogen also is the biggest pollutant, since half of the fertilizer gets leached into the soil before the roots can get it.” He is currently working on developing corn varieties with roots that absorb the nutrient more efficiently.

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* African farmers are poor and fertilizers take fossil fuels to manufacture,” said Lynch. “A pound of fertilizer in Malawi costs ten times more than it does in Europe
* Using standard plant breeding techniques, Lynch and colleagues produced bean plants with shallow, spreading roots that flourish in infertile soil. He also chose plants that produced more root hairs. The shallow roots were an improvement of about 600 percent in production and the increased root hairs were an improvement of 250 percent.

* the plants do remove phosphorus from the soil, more phosphorus was being lost to erosion due to sloping fields. Healthy, leafy plants prevented erosion, and the soils were generally better than with poor quality deep-rooted plants. Decreasing erosion by two to three times easily made up for what the plants removed.

*If we can move corn from being 50 percent efficient with nitrogen to 60 percent efficient we will save billions of dollars and there will be an environmental gain as well