Quantifying coupled deformation and water flow in the rhizosphere using X-ray microtomography and numerical simulations

Aravena, Jazmı́n E. and Berli, Markus and Ruiz, Siul and Suárez, Francisco and Ghezzehei, Teamrat A. and Tyler, Scott W.

Plant and Soil, vol. 376(1-2), pp. 95–110 , 2013.


Rhizosphere, Growth, Mechanical deformation, Uptake, X-ray microtomography


Background and aims The rhizosphere, the soil immediately surrounding roots, provides a critical bridge for water and nutrient uptake. The rhizosphere is influenced by various forms of root–soil interactions of which mechanical deformation due to root growth and its effects on the hydraulics of the rhizosphere are the least studied. In this work, we focus on developing new experimental and numerical tools to assess these changes. Methods This study combines X-ray micro-tomography (XMT) with coupled numerical simulation of fluid and soil deformation in the rhizosphere. The study provides a new set of tools to mechanistically investigate root-induced rhizosphere compaction and its effect on root water uptake. The numerical simulator was tested on highly deformable soil to document its ability to handle a large degree of strain. Results Our experimental results indicate that measured rhizosphere compaction by roots via localized soil compaction increased the simulated water flow to the roots by 27 % as compared to an uncompacted fine-textured soil of low bulk density characteristic of seed beds or forest topsoils. This increased water flow primarily occurred due to local deformation of the soil aggregates as seen in the XMT images, which increased hydraulic conductivity of the soil. Further simulated root growth and deformation beyond that observed in the XMT images led to water uptake enhancement of  50 % beyond that due to root diameter increase alone and demonstrated the positive benefits of root compaction in low density soils. Conclusions The development of numerical models to quantify the coupling of root driven compaction and fluid flow provides new tools to improve the understanding of plant water uptake, nutrient availability and agricultural efficiency. This study demonstrated that plants, particularly during early growth in highly deformable low density soils, are involved in active mechanical management of their surroundings. These modeling approaches may now be used to quantify compaction and root growth impacts in a wide range of soils.