Roots, Roots, Roots with Karen Sanguinet


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Contact Karen Sanguinet by email at or by phone at 509-335-3662.

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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Karen Sanguinet. Karen is an assistant professor of crop physiology. She joined WSU and the Crop Soil Sciences Department in May 2014 after a brief stint as an assistant professor at Iwate University in Japan. Her research program focuses on root development and root system architecture and temperate grasses with a focus on cold and drought tolerance. Her group also works on the basic molecular underpinnings of hormone signaling and crosstalk with the cell wall that drives growth. She teaches an undergraduate crop physiology course on how plants interact with the environment. Hello, Karen.

Karen Sanguinet: Hi, Drew, thanks for having me.

Drew Lyon: It’s a pleasure to have you. So roots! What’s your favorite aspect of studying roots?

Karen Sanguinet: Well, I think the reason I became interested in studying roots is twofold. One is that they have this secret life as they navigate through the soil, and we can’t really see what they do, and studying them is difficult, but they’re also incredibly interesting. They show tremendous developmental plasticity. That means that depending on the soil type, compaction, chemistry of the soil they might grow really deep or really shallow. It just depends on nutrient and water availability.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, I was always told at graduate school don’t work on roots, that’s a lot of work. Now, I went to graduate school a long time ago, so is it easier to work on roots today than it used to be?

Karen Sanguinet: Well, it is somewhat easier because we’ve developed a lot of new technologies to detect roots in soil. Maybe some of our farmers out there have heard of ground penetrating radar. That is a technology that uses radar to try to find woody roots. Unfortunately, it’s not a good technology for wheat roots. But we do have a set of tools that are now being developed so we can look underground and look at plant roots growing in soil.

Drew Lyon: That’s been kind of an unresearched area because it has been so difficult so it’s really pretty interesting work. So you talked about tree roots, you talked about wheat roots; what about… how do wheat roots compare to some other crops that we might grow here in eastern Washington such as canola or chickpea?

Karen Sanguinet: That’s a really important fundamental difference, and I’m glad you asked me that question. So wheat roots differ in that they are considered a fibrous root system. The botanical term is homorhizic. It basically means that all roots are equal. And they branch a lot and they grow a lot and there are different root types, in fact, in a wheat root system. If you compare it to canola or chickpea roots those have more of a tap-rooted system. Chickpea roots, of course, are very special. They’re a leguminous crop. They form a symbiotic interaction with rhizobia in the soil in which they fix nitrogen. So this is kind of the basis of our crop rotation and why it’s so good to replenish the soil with nitrogen through chickpeas or lentils.

Drew Lyon: So for our listeners, for the farmers out there, what’s something that every farmer should know about roots?

Karen Sanguinet: Well, I would say that roots, in the Palouse, they grow deep. I asked farmers when I first started I wasn’t sure how deep wheat roots would get in the field. And, of course, in the greenhouse or lab we grow plants in tiny pots. But the wheat roots growing in soil have an infinite space in which to grow. And some farmers tell me, “Oh, I think they’re about four or five feet deep.” Well, it turns out we had to use a Giddings probe and take deep soil cores. And we could find wheat roots down ten feet into the soil.

Drew Lyon: That is deep.

Karen Sanguinet: That is deep, deeper than we anticipated or can even study with our mini-rhizotrons that we use to scan the root/soil interface. So I think thinking about how deep and what that means in terms of how deep they’re growing and how they access water. Also what we’ve been able to observe with my research group is that the roots grow deep first, and then they branch subsequently. And wheat roots really don’t grow at all after heading. So once the plant has headed and transitioned to flowering it puts absolutely no resources in growing its roots system. So in terms of management, I think farmers need to think about roots growing deep, then branching, and then stopping.

Drew Lyon: Very good. So what are the research questions that motivate you and keep you thinking about roots and the things you like to do?

Karen Sanguinet: Well, I have a lot of different research questions that I’m trying to address in my lab. But as you mentioned wheat roots and roots in general, are hard to study. And there’s still a lot of open questions. I think the impact that we can make in studying root systems and improving root systems and providing tools to both farmers and breeders and understanding how roots grow are things that definitely motivate me. A healthy root system is a healthy plant. Breeding for resistance to a lot of soilborne pathogens has been really difficult. Again, same issue. Fumigating the soil is pretty hard and toxic. A lot of compounds that farmers traditionally used like methyl bromide and other things for nematodes are now off-market and you’re not able to use them. So if we can understand how roots grow and their chemical and molecular and biological composition we can better address how to have a healthy root system that supports really good yields in the Pacific Northwest.

Drew Lyon: I think I read somewhere somebody said we know more about outer space than we do about some of the things going on in the soil. I don’t know if that’s really true, but it just points out how little we really do know about what’s going on down there.

Karen Sanguinet: Well, absolutely. I think that’s a good analogy. And several of my colleagues in the field have called the rhizosphere the next frontier in plant biology or the next frontier for the next green revolution. That the next green revolution will come by figuring out how roots grow. And I didn’t mention it, but most breeding efforts, because we can’t really easily select and see what’s going on below ground, we select for above ground traits and yield traits and disease resistant traits and the shoots and stems. What’s happened over breeding time and over time is that the root systems have been reduced. So if we look at modern cultivars that we grow in our fields, in greenhouse trials or even in the field, they do pretty well in the field. But compared to landraces and more acclimated populations and or varieties to drought let’s say, their root systems are much deeper and/or more proliferative.

Drew Lyon: Very interesting. I look forward to learning more about what you learn about in the soil. If our listeners want to learn more about what you’re doing is there someplace they can go to find that information?

Karen Sanguinet: Yeah, you can go to my faculty page at the Crop and Soil Sciences webpage, and look for me on the faculty page. It’s Sanguinet, S-A-N-G-U-I-N-E-T.

Drew Lyon: Thank you very much, Karen.

Karen Sanguinet: Thank you, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at You can find us online at You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.

Categories: Podcast