• How does Water circulate through Plants? Scientists watch real-time uptake
    Kevin Webb

News & Views

How does Water circulate through Plants? Scientists watch real-time uptake

Aug 18 2021

“This innovative technique is a real game-changer in plant science – enabling researchers to visualise water movement at a cell and second scale within living plant tissues for the very first time." Malcolm Bennett

Trying to visualise in fine detail exactly how plants absorb water and understand the processes which enable it to flow through, or be stored by different cell tissues has always presented problems for researchers using non-invasive methods. Now scientists at the university of Nottingham have been the first in the world to watch how plant roots take up water in real time, by using a new imaging method based on the Nobel Prize-winning Raman scattering technique - which offers potential for helping to identify future drought- and flood-resistant crops. 

Observing real-time processes

Study lead, Dr Kevin Webb from the Optics and Photonics Research Group, explained: “To observe water uptake in living plants without damaging them, we have applied a sensitive, laser-based, optical microscopy technique to see water movement inside living roots non-invasively, which has never been done before.

 “Fundamentally, the process by which plants are able to thrive and become productive crops is based on how well it can take up water and how well it can manage that process. Water plays an essential role as a solvent for nutrients, minerals and other biomolecules in plant tissues. We’ve developed a way to allow ourselves to watch that process at the level of single cells. We can not only see the water going up inside the root, but also where and how it travels around.

“Feeding the world’s growing population is already a problem. Climate change is causing huge shifts in the pattern and density of waterfall on the planet which leads to problems growing crops in regions hit by floods or droughts. By selecting plants that are better at coping with stress, the goal is to increase global food productivity by understanding and using plant varieties with the best chances of survival that can be most productive in any given environment, no matter how dry or wet 

The results of this Leverhulme Trust-funded study confirmed for the first time that water uptake is restricted within the central tissues of the root, inside of which the water vessels are located.

Addressing climate change challenges

Co-lead, Malcolm Bennett, Professor of Plant Sciences at the University, said, “This innovative technique is a real game-changer in plant science – enabling researchers to visualise water movement at a cell and second scale within living plant tissues for the very first time. This promises to help us address important questions such as – how do plants ‘sense’ water availability? Answers to this question are vital for designing future crops better adapted to the challenges we face with climate change and altered weather patterns.”

The research team is currently bidding for a European Research Council Synergy Grant with partners in the EU and UK to take the study of water uptake and drought resistance towards being a new tool to help choose and understand how particular crops can be matched to particular local growth conditions.

They are also currently porting these same methods to human cells to understand exactly the same kinds of processes at an even smaller scale.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications in a paper entitled: ‘Non-invasive hydrodynamic imaging in plant roots at cellular resolution’ (DOI 10.1038/s41467-021-24913-z)..

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