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Most plants derive their water and nutrient needs from soils where the resources are often scarce, patchy, and ephemeral. It is not uncommon for plant roots to encounter mismatched patches of water-rich and nutrient-rich regions in natural environments. Such an uneven distribution of resources necessitates plant reliance on strategies for exploring and acquiring nutrients from relatively dry patches. We conducted a laboratory study that elucidates the biophysical mechanisms that enable this adaptation. The roots of tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) seedlings were laterally split and grown in two adjacent, hydraulically disconnected pots, which permitted precise control of water and nutrient applications to each compartment. We observed that the physical separation of water-rich and nutrient-rich compartments (one received 90% water and 0% nutrients and the other received 10% water and 100% nutrients) does not significantly stunt plant growth and productivity compared to two control treatments (control 1: 90% water and 100% nutrients versus 10% water and 0% nutrients; control 2: 50% water and 50% nutrients in each compartment). Specifically, we showed that soil dryness does not reduce nutrient uptake, vegetative growth, flowering, and fruiting compared to control treatments. We identified localized root proliferation in nutrient-rich dry soil patches as a critical strategy that enabled nutrient capture. We observed nocturnal rewetting of the nutrient-rich but dry soil zone (10% water and 100% nutrients) but not in the nutrient-free and dry zone of the control experiment (90% water and 100% nutrients). We interpreted the rewetting as the transfer of water from the wet to dry zones through roots, a process commonly known as hydraulic redistribution (HR). The occurrence of HR likely prevents the nutrient-rich soil from drying due to permanent wilting and the subsequent decline of root functions. Sustaining rhizosphere wetness is also likely to increase nutrient mobility and uptake. Lack of HR in the absence of nutrients suggests that HR is not entirely a passive, water-potential-gradient driven flow. The density and size of root hairs appeared to be higher (qualitative observation) in the nutrientrich and dry compartments than in the nutrient-free and dry compartments. We also observed organic coating on sand grains in the rhizosphere of the nutrient-rich and dry compartments. The observations are consistent with prior observations that root hairs and rhizodeposition aid rhizosphere wetting. These findings were synthesized in a conceptual model that explains how plants of dry regions may be adapted to mismatched resources. This study also suggests that separating the bulk of applied nutrients from the frequently irrigated soil region can increase nutrient use efficiency and curtail water pollution from intensive agricultural systems.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.