Roots at the Percolation Threshold

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Eva Kroener1, Mutez Ali Ahmed1, Anders Kaestner2, Peter Vontobel2, Mohsen Zarebanadkouki1 and Andrea Carminati1, (1)Georg-August-Universitaet Goettingen, Goettingen, Germany, (2)Paul Scherrer Institut, Villigen, Switzerland
Much of the carbon assimilated by plants during photosynthesis is lost to the soil via rhizodepositions. One component of rhizopdeposition is mucilage, a hydrogel that dramatically alters the soil physical properties. Mucilage was assumed to explain unexpectedly low rhizosphere rewetting rates during irrigation (Carminati et al. 2010) and temporarily water repellency in the rhizosphere after severe drying (Moradi et al. 2012).

Here, we present an experimental and theoretical study for the rewetting behaviour of a soil mixed with mucilage, which was used as an analogue of the rhizosphere. Our samples were made of two layers of untreated soils separated by a thin layer (ca. 1 mm) of soil treated with mucilage. We prepared soil columns of varying particle size, mucilage concentration and height of the middle layer above the water table. The dry soil columns were re-wetted by capillary rise from the bottom.

The rewetting of the middle layer showed a distinct dual behavior. For mucilage concentrations lower than a certain threshold, water could cross the thin layer almost immediately after rewetting of bulk soil. At slightly higher mucilage concentrations, the thin layer was almost impermeable. The mucilage concentration at the threshold strongly depended on particle size: the smaller the particle size the larger the soil specific surface and the more mucilage was needed to cover the entire particle surface and to induce water repellency.

We applied a classic pore network model to simulate the experimental observations. In the model a certain fraction of nodes were randomly disconnected to reproduce the effect of mucilage in temporarily blocking the flow. The percolation model could qualitatively reproduce well the threshold characteristics of the experiments.

Our experiments, together with former observations of water dynamics in the rhizosphere, suggest that the rhizosphere is near the percolation threshold, where small variations in mucilage concentration sensitively alter the soil hydraulic conductivity. Is mucilage exudation a plant mechanism to efficiently control the rhizosphere conductivity and the access to water?