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Plant roots go to extreme lengths to find water

Understanding how plants will survive and adapt to climate change is crucial as they provide oxygen and take in carbon dioxide. A new study from Rutgers University-New Brunswick set to find how resilient plants are by looking at the roots and how deep they travel to find water.

The research revealed that some trees will send their roots down hundreds of feet and through rock cracks to get to a water source.

The deeper a plant’s roots, the better suited it will be in times of drought and changing climate.

“Roots sense the environment. They sense the water, where there’s more nutrients, and they go for these resources. Roots are the smartest part of the plant,” said Ying Fan Reinfelder, professor and lead author of the study.

The study was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Reinfelder and her colleagues collected data on the roots of more than 1,000 species of plants all over the world including trees, grasses, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and succulents.

The results show the connection between soil and water conditions and how far a plant’s roots will travel. The researchers found that soil hydrology, or the moisture content of the soil, is the primary motivator driving root depths.

The researchers noted how in well-drained uplands, roots travel with the rainwater and snowmelt levels, and in lowlands, plants have shallow roots because the soil is so saturated. Essentially, roots go to wherever the water is.

As climate change continues to become an increasing concern, with record-breaking heatwaves, forest fires, floods, and drought, this study reveals the resilience of plants within a changing global environment.

“Plants may be more resourceful and resilient to environmental stress and climate change than we previously thought, but only to a certain extent, they can withstand a period of drought. But if the drought continues for a century, they’re not going to be able to cope with that,” said Reinfelder.

The research helps emphasize the need for further understanding of soil, local water levels, and plant root depth, as it could prove essential to navigating climate change.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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