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The overarching aim of the project is to identify and harness key rhizosphere traits that increase resistance and resilience of crop yield to drought.

Functional traits of plant holobionts provided by rhizosphere systems are of fundamental importance to increase resistance and resilience of yields to forcing by global change. Still, an optimization of belowground traits has been rarely considered in plant breeding schemes. The interdisciplinary RhizoTraits project aims to provide a systematic understanding of the most important rhizosphere traits and the mechanisms by which they support quality and quantity of yield and drought resistance. Relevant traits include root hair formation, exudation, mucilage secretion, as well as mycorrhization and rhizosphere microbiome selection. Our working hypothesis is that rhizosphere traits impact carbon (C) allocation, soil structure formation, water and nutrient use efficiency and drought resistance of important crops like maize and winter wheat.

A comparative approach is chosen to elucidate trait functions by focussing on a well-tailored selection of high yield varieties vs. old landraces and different soil types. Process knowledge will be gained by innovative analytical tools bridging all relevant scales and disciplines, and will be linked to plant performance and yield measured in phenotyping platforms and field trials. Improved understanding of rhizosphere traits gained by field and laboratory studies will 1) be linked to historic records to assess factors that drive spatial and temporal pattern of yields between preindustrial times and today, and will 2) allow the conception of a mechanistic biogeochemical model for yield prediction. After field scale validation, the model will be used in an upscaling approach to assess impacts of improved rhizosphere functionality on drought resistance and yields under current but also future climate scenarios. The project will seek to implement the lessons learnt into recommendations for agricultural management practices and future plant breeding schemes aimed at sustaining and increasing yields, particularly considering extreme climate conditions.

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