Neutron imaging reveals internal plant water dynamics

Jeffrey M. Warren, Hassina Bilheux, Misun Kang, Sophie Voisin, Chu Lin Cheng, Juske Horita, Edmund Perfect

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Background and aims: Knowledge of plant water fluxes is critical for assessing mechanistic processes linked to biogeochemical cycles, yet resolving root water transport dynamics has been a particularly daunting task. Our objectives were to demonstrate the ability to non-invasively monitor individual root functionality and water fluxes within Zea mays L. (maize) and Panicum virgatum L. (switchgrass) seedlings using neutron imaging. Methods: Seedlings were propagated for 1-3 weeks in aluminum chambers containing sand. Pulses of water or deuterium oxide were then tracked through the root systems by collecting consecutive radiographs during exposure to a cold-neutron source. Water flux was manipulated by cycling on a growth lamp to alter foliar demand for water. Results: Neutron radiography readily illuminated root structure, root growth, and relative plant and soil water content. After irrigation there was rapid root water uptake from the newly wetted soil, followed by hydraulic redistribution of water through the root system to roots terminating in dry soil. Water flux within individual roots responded differentially to foliar illumination based on supply and demand of water within the root system. Conclusions: Sub-millimeter scale image resolution revealed timing and magnitudes of root water uptake, redistribution within the roots, and root-shoot hydraulic linkages-relationships not well characterized by other techniques.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)683-693
Number of pages11
JournalPlant and Soil
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - May 2013


  • Computed tomography
  • Hydraulic redistribution
  • Maize
  • Radiography
  • Root water uptake
  • Water transport


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