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Research article2021Peer reviewedOpen access

Reversible and irreversible root phenotypic plasticity under fluctuating soil physical conditions

Sjulgard, Hanna; Iseskog, Daniel; Kirchgessner, Norbert; Bengough, A. Glyn; Keller, Thomas; Colombi, Tino


Roots grow in a highly heterogeneous physical environment due to the spatial complexity of soil structure. Thereby, the root growth zone repeatedly experiences soil physical stress such as hypoxia or increased penetration resistance. To mimic the highly variable physical environment surrounding the root growth zone, we subjected pea and wheat seedlings to periodic soil physical stress. One day of soil hypoxia or increased penetration resistance reduced root elongation rate of both species by at least 20 %. Upon stress release, root elongation rate of pea could recover within one day, while no such recovery occurred in wheat. Similarly, the diameter of the root elongation zone in pea increased by 15 % and 20 % due to hypoxia and increased penetration resistance, respectively, but decreased again once the stresses were released. In contrast, the diameter of the elongation zone of wheat roots started to decrease with the onset of soil physical stress and this trend continued upon stress release. Hence, root responses to short-term soil physical stress were reversible in pea and irreversible in wheat, indicating reversible and irreversible root phenotypic plasticity, respectively. This suggests that strategies to cope with periodic soil physical stress may vary among species. The differentiation between reversible and irreversible phenotypic plasticity is crucial to advance our understanding on soil exploration, resource acquisition, whole plant growth, and ultimately crop yield formation on structured soil.


Phenotypic plasticity; Root growth; Root phenomics; Soil heterogeneity; Soil hypoxia; Soil penetration resistance

Published in

Environmental and Experimental Botany
2021, Volume: 188, article number: 104494