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Case Study - Cluster (proteoid) roots

M. Watt

Cluster or proteoid roots (Figure 1) are found in many species originating from nutrient-deficient soils (Dinkelaker et al. 1995). They enhance uptake of nutrients, especially phosphate. Species which develop these “dense clusters of rootlets of limited growth” include members of the Australian family Proteaceae, where they were first described by Purnell (1960). Other families such as the Casuarinaceae, Cyperaceae, Mimosaceae and Restionaceae also contain species with heavily branched root systems (Lamont 1993). Significantly, few species with cluster roots are mycorrhizal, implying that root clusters fulfil a similar role to mycorrhizal fungi.

Australian soils generally contain low concentrations of plant-available phosphate, much of it bound with iron–aluminium silicates into insoluble forms or concentrated in the remains of decaying plant matter. Because very little of this phosphate is soluble, most roots extract it only slowly. Plants with cluster roots gain access to fixed and organic phosphate through an increase in surface area and release of phosphate-solubilising exudates. Hence plants with cluster roots grow faster on phosphate-fixing soils than species without clusters.

Cluster roots have a distinct morphology. Intense proliferation of closely spaced, lateral ‘rootlets’ occurs along part of a root axis to form the visually striking structures. Root hairs develop along each rootlet and result in a further increase in surface area compared to regions where cluster roots have not developed.

In the Proteaceae, clusters generally form on basal laterals so that they are abundant near the soil surface where most nutrients are found. For example, Banksia serrata produces a persistent, dense root mat capable of intercepting nutrients from leaf litter and binding the protecting underlying soil from erosion (Figure 1a). New clusters differentiate on the surface of this mat after fires and are well placed to capture nutrients. In contrast, Banksia prionotes forms ephemeral clusters which export large amounts of nutrients during winter . Lupinus albus has more random clusters which appear on up to 50% of roots (Figure 2).