Rusted root: Weedy rice repeatedly evolves 'cheater' root traits

8th April 2019

Weedy rice is neither wild rice nor crop rice, but rice gone rogue that has shed some traits important to people. It also is an incredibly aggressive, potentially detrimental weed that pops up almost everywhere rice is grown, and it can reduce crop yields by more than 80 percent if it invades a field.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center used a new imaging technique to reveal a takeover strategy that has worked for weedy rice over and over again: roots that minimize below-ground contact with other plants.

"Weedy rice may have evolved a go-it-alone 'cheater' root growth strategy that could allow it to exploit the nutrient-sharing soil environment of rice fields," said Kenneth M. Olsen, professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University and senior author on a new paper in New Phytologist relating their findings.

"We tend to think of competition occurring above ground because that's the part of the plant we see. But that's only half the plant," Olsen said. "It's the 'hidden half' -- i.e., the root system -- that plays a critical role in some of the most important aspects of plant growth and survival, including water uptake and competition for essential nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus."

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