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Front Plant Sci. 2014 Sep 16;5:469. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2014.00469. eCollection 2014.

Belowground plant development measured with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): exploiting the potential for non-invasive trait quantification using sugar beet as a proxy.

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Institute of Bio- and Geosciences, IBG-2: Plant Sciences, Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH Jülich, Germany.


Both structural and functional properties of belowground plant organs are critical for the development and yield of plants but, compared to the shoot, much more difficult to observe due to soil opacity. Many processes concerning the belowground plant performance are not fully understood, in particular spatial and temporal dynamics and their interrelation with environmental factors. We used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as a noninvasive method to evaluate which traits can be measured when a complex plant organ is monitored in-vivo while growing in the soil. We chose sugar beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) as a model system. The beet consists mainly of root tissues, is rather complex regarding tissue structure and responses to environmental factors, and thereby a good object to test the applicability of MRI for 3D phenotyping approaches. Over a time period of up to 3 months, traits such as beet morphology or anatomy were followed in the soil and the effect of differently sized pots on beet fresh weight calculated from MRI data was studied. There was a clear positive correlation between the pot size and the increase in fresh weight of a sugar beet over time. Since knowledge of the development of internal beet structures with several concentric cambia, vascular and parenchyma rings is still limited, we consecutively acquired 3D volumetric images on individual plants using the MRI contrast parameter T2 to map the development of rings at the tissue level. This demonstrates that MRI provides versatile protocols to non-invasively measure plant traits in the soil. It opens new avenues to investigate belowground plant performance under adverse environmental conditions such as drought, nutrient shortage, or soil compaction to seek for traits of belowground organs making plants more resilient to stress.


Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris (sugar beet); cambial rings; imaging (3D); magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); non-invasive method; root development

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