Commercial maize hybrids have smaller root systems after 80 Years of breeding

B. Rinehart, L. Borras, M. Salmeron, D. H. McNear, H. Poffenbarger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Roots have gained attention for their role in improving plant function in high-stress environments and providing ecosystem services such as soil organic carbon storage. An important step in breeding for enhanced root phenotypes is understanding how root traits have changed historically due to selection for yield and other aboveground traits. However, among the few era panel studies focused on roots, there are conflicting findings about how breeding has altered traits such as root system length and biomass, while other traits such as root depth distribution, root size class distribution, and tissue quality remain largely unexplored. Our aim was to assess breeding-driven changes in root traits that are relevant to resource acquisition and soil carbon sequestration. We grew twelve maize (Zea mays L.) hybrids from the Corteva/Pioneer ERA panel, spanning from 1936 to 2014, in 1.5 m deep mesocosms. At the eight-leaf stage, intact root systems were imaged and analyzed using a custom root phenotyping platform, and roots and shoots were subjected to carbon and nitrogen analysis and Diffuse Reflectance FTIR to assess variation in tissue composition. We found that the newest hybrids produced 40% less root biomass and 36% less root length than the oldest hybrids, with declines of 0.024 g year−1 (s.e.: 0.005, p < 0.01) and 0.86 m year−1 (s.e.: 0.23, p < 0.01) with no changes in maximum rooting depth, which averaged 113 cm (±5.62)., and no directional shifts in chemical composition. We also found a decline in the root-to-shoot ratio from 0.58 g g−1 to 0.46 g g−1 (s.e.: 0.0006, p < 0.05). Our results suggest that selection for yield has indirectly decreased root system size over 80 years of maize breeding. Smaller root systems of modern hybrids may contribute to the higher optimum plant populations and higher yields of modern maize hybrids.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100915
StatePublished - Jun 2024

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© 2024 The Authors


  • Carbon sequestration
  • Crop resilience
  • Root phenotyping
  • Soil carbon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Soil Science
  • Plant Science


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