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Increasing physical water scarcity is a major constraint for irrigated rice (Oryza sativa) production. ‘Aerobic rice culture’ aims to maximize yield per unit water input by growing plants in aerobic soil without flooding or puddling. The objective was to determine (a) the effect of water management on root morphology and hydraulic conductance, and (b) their roles in plant–water relationships and stomatal conductance in aerobic culture.
Root system development, stomatal conductance (gs) and leaf water potential (Ψleaf) were monitored in a high-yielding rice cultivar (‘Takanari’) under flooded and aerobic conditions at two soil moisture levels [nearly saturated (> –10 kPa) and mildly dry (> –30 kPa)] over 2 years. In an ancillary pot experiment, whole-plant hydraulic conductivity (soil-leaf hydraulic conductance; Kpa) was measured under flooded and aerobic conditions.
Adventitious root emergence and lateral root proliferation were restricted even under nearly saturated conditions, resulting in a 72–85 % reduction in total root length under aerobic culture conditions. Because of their reduced rooting size, plants grown under aerobic conditions tended to have lower Kpa than plants grown under flooded conditions. Ψleaf was always significantly lower in aerobic culture than in flooded culture, while gs was unchanged when the soil moisture was at around field capacity. gs was inevitably reduced when the soil water potential at 20-cm depth reached –20 kPa.
Unstable performance of rice in water-saving cultivations is often associated with reduction in Ψleaf. Ψleaf may reduce even if Kpa is not significantly changed, but the lower Ψleaf would certainly occur in case Kpa reduces as a result of lower water-uptake capacity under aerobic conditions. Rice performance in aerobic culture might be improved through genetic manipulation that promotes lateral root branching and rhizogenesis as well as deep rooting.