BACKGROUND: The incorporation of root traits into elite germplasm is typically a slow process. Thus, innovative approaches are required to accelerate research and pre-breeding programs targeting root traits to improve yield stability in different environments and soil types. Marker-assisted selection (MAS) can help to speed up the process by selecting key genes or quantitative trait loci (QTL) associated with root traits. However, this approach is limited due to the complex genetic control of root traits and the limited number of well-characterised large effect QTL. Coupling MAS with phenotyping could increase the reliability of selection. Here we present a useful framework to rapidly modify root traits in elite germplasm. In this wheat exemplar, a single plant selection (SPS) approach combined three main elements: phenotypic selection (in this case for seminal root angle); MAS using KASP markers (targeting a root biomass QTL); and speed breeding to accelerate each cycle.
RESULTS: To develop a SPS approach that integrates non-destructive screening for seminal root angle and root biomass, two initial experiments were conducted. Firstly, we demonstrated that transplanting wheat seedlings from clear pots (for seminal root angle assessment) into sand pots (for root biomass assessment) did not impact the ability to differentiate genotypes with high and low root biomass. Secondly, we demonstrated that visual scores for root biomass were correlated with root dry weight (r = 0.72), indicating that single plants could be evaluated for root biomass in a non-destructive manner. To highlight the potential of the approach, we applied SPS in a backcrossing program which integrated MAS and speed breeding for the purpose of rapidly modifying the root system of elite bread wheat line Borlaug100. Bi-directional selection for root angle in segregating generations successfully shifted the mean root angle by 30° in the subsequent generation (P ≤ 0.05). Within 18 months, BC2F4:F5 introgression lines were developed that displayed a full range of root configurations, while retaining similar above-ground traits to the recurrent parent. Notably, the seminal root angle displayed by introgression lines varied more than 30° compared to the recurrent parent, resulting in lines with both narrow and wide root angles, and high and low root biomass phenotypes.
CONCLUSION: The SPS approach enables researchers and plant breeders to rapidly manipulate root traits of future crop varieties, which could help improve productivity in the face of increasing environmental fluctuations. The newly developed elite wheat lines with modified root traits provide valuable materials to study the value of different root systems to support yield in different environments and soil types.