Plant-soil interactions: The impact of plant water use on root architecture and soil structure

Tinashe Mawodza

Crops that use water and nutrients more efficiently are seen as a potential way of limiting projected falls in the levels of many of the resources that they rely on, such as fresh water and phosphate. Genetic tools can be used to modify the way a plant’s shoot or root develop to improve water and nutrient uptake. But changing these features may have significant consequences for soil structure and equally, changes to the soil structure itself may have a major impact on root development.

As existing research has mainly focused on the parts of the plants that sit above the ground, little is known about how altering a plant’s efficiency will affect how it develops below ground. This project will examine plants that have been engineered to use water efficiently, and the impact that this modification has had on root development and soil structure. It will look at the physical interactions between roots and soil to determine how these forces affect the way roots develop and function.

Modelling and experimentally testing these interactions will allow plant traits to be matched to particular soil types in a way that will improve soil sustainability. Plant roots will be imaged using non-destructive X-ray microtomography (XMT) technology to generate 3D maps of the root system, enabling better understanding of soil-plant relations.


Patience Muchada and Tinashe Mawodza teaching school children about sustainability
Patience Muchada and Tinashe Mawodza teaching school children about sustainability

Many ways of improving crop yields can be discovered when scientists get to grips with the underlying processes in plants. Tinashe Mawodza introduced our students to a process known as ‘hydraulic lift’. In this blog, he explains how it could help plants in regions where water is scarce. Read: Hydraulic lift and water scarcity.

Grantham Scholars have been in Zimbabwe to teach schoolchildren about the importance of sustainable living. Tinashe Mawodza and Patience Muchada led a session for students at Macheke High School. Find out more.

Tinashe Mawodza was one of three Grantham Scholars who joined the University of Sheffield’s delegation to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Here, he reports back. Read: Impressions from COP22: Energy access and climate change through the energy-water-food nexus.


Wheat root system architecture and soil moisture distribution in an aggregated soil using neutron computed tomography


Dr Stuart Casson

Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology

Dr Manoj Menon

Department of Civil Engineering


Dr Damien Lacroix

Department of Mechanical Engineering