The root of the problem: diverse vulnerability to xylem cavitation found within the root system of wheat plants

Harrison Day BL, Johnson KM, Tonet V, Bourbia I, Blackman C and Brodribb TJ

New Phytologist


  • The propagation of xylem embolism throughout the root systems of drought-affected plants remains largely unknown, despite this process being comparatively well characterized in aboveground tissues.
  • We used optical and X-ray imaging to capture xylem embolism propagation across the intact root systems of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L. ‘Krichauff’) plants subjected to drying. Patterns in vulnerability to xylem cavitation were examined to investigate whether vulnerability may vary based on root size and placement across the entire root system.
  • Individual plants exhibited similar mean whole root system vulnerabilities to xylem cavitation but showed enormous 6 MPa variation within their component roots (c. 50 roots per plant). Xylem cavitation typically initiated in the smallest, peripheral parts of the root system and moved inwards and upwards towards the root collar last, although this trend was highly variable.
  • This pattern of xylem embolism spread likely results in the sacrifice of replaceable small roots while preserving function in larger, more costly central roots. A distinct pattern of embolism-spread belowground has implications for how we understand the impact of drought in the root system as a critical interface between plant and soil.