A tool developed by scientists at the University of Manchester will allow plant breeders to see under the soil to check how effectively crop roots are using water and nutrients.

The technology will enable breeders to single out species that are most tolerant to environmental stresses, says Bruce Grieve from the Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre.

“Climate change means that the ability to rapidly identify new plant varieties tolerant to drought and other stresses is going to be critical to breeding the food crops of tomorrow – our technology will help do that.”

At the moment, breeders highlight preferential genetics, by monitoring plant performance above the soil surface, says Dr Grieve.

“These indicators of plant vigour are often based on loosely related features which maybe straightforward to examine, but are labour intensive and lack direct linkage to required crop features.”

The new technology will give more useful results, he adds. “It will not simply provide a picture of the size and shape of the root structure, but rather a non-destructive, quantified and real-time indication of how well they function.”