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Environ Exp Bot. 2001 Jun;45(3):263-289.

Advancing fine root research with minirhizotrons.

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  • 1U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory, Western Ecology Division, 97333, Corvallis, OR, USA


Minirhizotrons provide a nondestructive, in situ method for directly viewing and studying fine roots. Although many insights into fine roots have been gained using minirhizotrons, a review of the literature indicates a wide variation in how minirhizotrons and minirhizotron data are used. Tube installation is critical, and steps must be taken to insure good soil/tube contact without compacting the soil. Ideally, soil adjacent to minirhizotrons will mimic bulk soil. Tube installation causes some degree of soil disturbance and has the potential to create artifacts in subsequent root data and analysis. We therefore recommend a waiting period between tube installation and image collection of 6-12 months to allow roots to recolonize the space around the tubes and to permit nutrients to return to pre-disturbance levels. To make repeated observations of individual roots for the purposes of quantifying their dynamic properties (e.g. root production, turnover or lifespan), tubes should be secured to prevent movement. The frequency of image collection depends upon the root parameters being measured or calculated and the time and resources available for collecting images and extracting data. However, long sampling intervals of 8 weeks or more can result in large underestimates of root dynamic properties because more fine roots will be born and die unobserved between sampling events. A sampling interval of 2 weeks or less reduces these underestimates to acceptable levels. While short sample intervals are desirable, they can lead to a potential trade-off between the number of minirhizotron tubes used and the number of frames analyzed per tube. Analyzing fewer frames per minirhizotron tube is one way to reduce costs with only minor effects on data variation. The quality of minirhizotron data should be assessed and reported; procedures for quantifying the quality of minirhizotron data are presented here. Root length is a more sensitive metric for dynamic root properties than the root number. To make minirhizotron data from separate experiments more easily comparable, idiosyncratic units should be avoided. Volumetric units compatible with aboveground plant measures make minirhizotron-based estimates of root standing crop, production and turnover more useful. Methods for calculating the volumetric root data are discussed and an example presented. Procedures for estimating fine root lifespan are discussed.

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