Root system size is a key trait for improving water and nitrogen uptake efficiency in wheat (Triticum aestivum
L.). This study aimed (i) to characterize the root system and shoot traits of five wheat cultivars with apparent differences in root system size; (ii) to evaluate whether the apparent differences in root system size observed at early vegetative stages in a previous semi-hydroponic phenotyping experiment are reflected at later phenological stages in plants grown in soil using large rhizoboxes. The five wheat cultivars were grown in a glasshouse in rhizoboxes filled to 1.0 m with field soil. Phenology and shoot traits were measured and root growth and proliferation were mapped to quantify root length density (RLD), root length per plant, root biomass and specific root length (SRL). Wheat cultivars with large root systems had greater root length, more root biomass and thicker roots, particularly in the top 40 cm, than those with small root systems. Cultivars that reached anthesis later had larger root system sizes than those that reached anthesis earlier. Later anthesis allowed more time for root growth and proliferation. Cultivars with large root systems had 25% more leaf area and biomass than those with small root systems, which presumably reflects high canopy photosynthesis to supply the demand for carbon assimilates to roots. Wheat cultivars with contrasting root system sizes at the onset of tillering (Z2.1) in a semi-hydroponic phenotyping system maintained their size ranking at booting (Z4.5) when grown in soil. Phenology, particularly time to anthesis, was associated with root system size.
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