Two tools from industry are being applied to the small grains breeding program by a Texas AgriLife Research team to help identify valuable drought-resistance traits in wheat faster and less intrusively than with normal practices.

The team consists of Dr. Amir Ibrahim, AgriLife Research small grains breeding program leader; Dr. Dirk Hays, a cereal grain development professor in the Texas A&M University soil and crop sciences department; Dr. Robert Washington-Allen, a professor in the Texas A&M ecosystem science and management department; and Sean Thompson, a doctoral graduate student in plant breeding.

The study is looking at below- and above-ground traits using high-throughput phenotyping or characterization technologies, Ibrahim said. The goal is to differentiate types of plants with the aim of identifying traits that give the breeding line an advantage when it comes to drought resistance.

Thompson’s project is using both ground-penetrating radar and terrestrial laser-scanning tools to look at traits “we have not been able to look at in the past,” Ibrahim said.

“What we are trying to do is apply technology that allows us to see further into characteristic traits than we have been able to with the human eye,” Thompson said.

Ground-penetrating radar was designed more or less for the construction industry to detect pipes, electrical lines or different densities of objects below ground, he said. This remote-sensing technology has been used to look at crop-water availability, but not to look directly at agricultural plant populations. The team believes they can adapt it so that for the first time, they will be able to look at the roots of wheat as it is growing in the field.

“It’s important for us to be able to do this in a non-destructive manner,” Thompson said. “In the past, people had to dig up the plant to measure root biomass. It was costly, time and labor intensive, and the plant would not survive.”

The ground-penetrating radar can map the three-dimensional spatial distribution, estimate the biomass of roots below ground and may be able to discriminate between different root systems from different crops, he said. The ability to map roots at different depths allows detection of plants with deeper roots or roots that spread out further.

“We think these root systems will provide the plant with more water during a drought situation,” Thompson said. “Our idea is if we can identify those plants in a population or be able to characterize the roots below ground, we could adapt our varieties to make them more drought-resistant or drought-tolerant.”