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Objectives

Increased exploitation of subsoil resources by crops can increase food production in a sustainable way. The objectives of the DeepFrontier project are to develop and study cropping systems with much deeper root growth and resource use than current cropping systems. The focus will be on soil layers from 1 to 5m depth, below the main root zone of current crops, but within depths which can be reached by plant roots.

Studying biology in deep soil layers is challenging and the scientific documentation and understanding of water and nutrient uptake from there is quite limited. We will develop equipment and methods, including a “deep root lab” facility allowing easier access to the study of deep roots. For the study of resource use, we will make innovative use of stable isotopes of plant nutrients. Biologically we will work on extraction and analysis of DNA from soil, as this can give us a broad range analysis of the soil biology and of the plant roots themselves.

The cropping systems we plan to study include systems which can be realistic in the short term, including deep rooted cover crops and crops e.g. for bioenergy to be included into cropping systems, as well as systems which represent more radical changes of agriculture e.g. by growing deep rooted perennials in rows and common annual crops between these rows.

Roots take up more than 20 different nutrients from the soil, and we cannot study all. We will choose examples to make sure that both mobile nutrients (e.g. nitrogen) and immobile nutrients (e.g. phosphorus) are represented, and include also water as a globally highly important resource. They will all be available in the subsoil, but with very different dynamics and different requirements for the plant roots to use them.

We will study effects of deep rooting on soil carbon (C) deposition which can contribute to climate change mitigation and on soil biology. Deep rooted plants will invest more biomass in roots, and C deposited in deep soil layers can be more permanently stored, as subsoil conditions are less favourable for its decomposition. Deep roots, when alive or when decaying will interact with soil biology in different ways than roots in upper soil layers. The biological activity in the subsoil is much lower, and the activity will therefore be much more directly governed by the immediate root growth than soil biology in upper soil layers. 

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