3.3  Soil–root interface

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As a general rule, the surface area of a root system exceeds the leaf canopy it supports. Even disregarding root hairs, the interface between roots of a three-week-old lupin plant and soil is about 100 cm2 while a four-month-old rye plant under good conditions has more than 200 m2 of root surface (Dittmer 1937). Trees’ root systems are difficult to quantify but kilometres of new roots each year generate hundreds of square metres of root surface. Such a root–soil interface arises through the simultaneous activity of up to half a million root meristems in a mature tree.


Figure 3.10 Transverse view of a young, soil-grown wheat root, sectioned by hand and stained with Toluidine Blue. Most soil in the rhizosheath was washed away during preparation, revealing many long root hairs extending from the main axis (diameter 0.6 mm). Root hairs allow this root to explore 21 times more soil volume than would be possible without hairs. A lateral root can be seen extending from the pericycle which surrounds the stele  (Photograph courtesy M.Watt)

Many roots form fine extensions to epidermal cells called root hairs, amplifying the effective surface area of the soil–root interface many times. Dittmer (1937) estimated that the surface area of root hairs in rye plants was more than that of the root axes on which they grew; similar observations have been made for trees. The aggregate length of root hairs in the rye plants studied by Dittmer increased 18 times faster than that of the main axes. Thus, up to 21 times more soil is explored when root hairs are present (Figure 3.10).

Anchorage and extraction of inorganic soil resources both call for a large area of contact between roots and soil. However, this vast interface is much more than a neutral interface; events within it allow resources to be extracted from the most unyielding soils. Intense chemical and biological activity in a narrow sleeve surrounding roots, particularly young axes, give rise to a rhizosphere.

Many root phenomena suggest specific roles for the rhizosphere. For example, roots have long been thought to find a relatively frictionless path through soils because of exudation of organic substances and cell sloughing but the chemical and physical processes that underpin this phenomenon are still quite unclear (Bengough and McKenzie 1997). Production of new roots around local zones of enrichment (Section 3.1) is made far more effective through rhizosphere activity associated with these young roots. Phosphate availability is particularly likely to be improved by the presence of a rhizosphere. Potential mechanisms will be discussed below.

Enhancement of root growth under conditions which favour high root:shoot ratios and the attendant rhizosphere surrounding those roots (rhizosheath) require a substantial input of organic carbon from shoots. Some is used in structural roles, while roots and microbes also require large amounts of carbon to sustain respiration. Even in plants growing in nutrient-adequate, moist soils, 30–60% of net photosynthate finds its way to roots (Marschner 1995). Carbon allocation to roots can be even greater in poor soils or during drought. The rhizosphere accounts for a large amount of root carbon consumption. Barber and Martin (1976) showed that 7–13% of net photosynthate was released by wheat roots over three weeks under sterile conditions while 18–25% was released when roots were not sterile. This difference might be considered carbon made unavailable for plant growth because of microbially induced demand in the rhizosphere (Section 3.3.3).


Figure 3.11 Concentration of Enterobacter cloacae (RP8) around wheat roots when the bacterium was introduced by inoculating seeds (circles) or soil (triangles). Uninoculated controls are shown as diamonds. Approximately 3 mm of the soil around roots supports an elevated bacterial population (Dijkstra et al. 1987; reproduced with permission of Elsevier Science)

Rhizosphere chemistry and physics differ from the adjacent soil matrix and root tissues. Gradients in solutes, water and gases combine with microbial activity to produce a unique compartment through which roots perceive bulk soil. This zone of influence extends not more than 3 mm from the root axis (Figure 3.11), partly due to the low diffusion coefficients of most solutes that move through the rhizosphere (10–12 to 10–15 m2 s–1 for ions such as orthophosphates). Even a relatively mobile ion such as nitrate, with a diffusion coefficient (D) of around 10–9 m2 s–1 in soil solution, diffuses through about 1 cm of soil in a day. Because the time required (t) for diffusion of ions is a function of the square of distance traversed (l), where t = l2/D a nitrate ion would take four days to travel 2 cm, nine days to travel 3 cm and so on. Similarly, organic carbon diffuses away from roots only slowly, sustaining a microbial population as it is consumed in the rhizosphere.

Roots advancing through soil perceive a wide range of chemical and biological environments: a rhizosphere simultaneously fulfils buffering, extraction and defence roles allowing roots to exploit soils. A rhizosphere is thus a dynamic space, responding to biological and environmental conditions and often improving acquisition of soil resources. New roots develop an active rhizosphere which matures rapidly as the root axis differentiates.