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The Hidden Half: CT scans reveal the underground secrets of plants

Ever wondered what the plants growing in your garden look like beneath the soil? A new website, launched by University of Nottingham, aims to demystify the “hidden half” of familiar plants with the help of technology more commonly associated with hospitals.

University of Nottingham’s Hounsfield Facility is a state-of the-art biological imaging centre that houses uniquely-adapted X-ray microCT scanners operated by robots. These can create 3D images of plant roots without damaging them or disturbing their natural arrangement. Earlier methods of studying plant roots required them to be dug up or grown in clear gels, which restricted our understanding of how plant roots interact with the soil in more natural settings.

“The X-ray microCT facilities at Hounsfield have transformed our research” says Professor Malcolm Bennett, Director of the Centre for Plant Integrative Biology at University of Nottingham. “They enable us to non-invasively image root growth and development in soil and discover entirely new root adaptive mechanisms that improve plants’ ability to forage for resources like water and nutrients.” As well as answering fundamental questions about root biology, this knowledge could contribute to the breeding of better plant varieties: for example, crops that use less water and fertiliser.

The public can now get an underground glimpse of their favourite plants via The Hidden Half, a web resource which showcases a wide variety of striking and informative images of plant roots from the Hounsfield Facility. The project is a team effort by researchers ranging from PhD students to professors who want to share their passion for root biology with the public “The Hidden Half website was designed to excite and enthuse researchers, teachers and members of the public about the amazing diversity of plant root architectures and anatomies” says Professor Bennett, who led the BBSRC-funded project. 17 different species and varieties are represented so far, from common garden herbs to exotic fruit trees, with a further 33 coming soon.

To explore the collection, visit University of Nottingham: The Hidden Half.


UK Research and Innovation Media Office

Tags: research technology plants University of Nottingham feature