Automated Root Sampling for Crop Phenotyping

Relevant to Crop Breeding and Genetics

At a Glance

Researchers at Colorado State University have developed an automated system for sampling roots from agricultural research plots in the field to systematically discover phenotypes relevant to crop breeding or genetics.  For the purposes of breeding crops or discovering genes controlling various traits of crops, analysis of hundreds or thousands of genotypes is required.  Thus, any phenotyping method that aims to be relevant for breeding or genetics needs the ability to be implemented on hundreds or thousands of plots per day, and in a consistent manner.


The innovative tool developed here will revolutionize the ability to study root structure and function in relevant agriculture field setting at a robust scale.  The system removes the bottleneck to apply genetic and genomic tools for the discovery and deployment of root traits that control plant growth and soil biogeochemistry.


Producing a sustainable food, fiber, and bioenergy supply for 9.7 billion people by 2050 is perhaps the greatest environmental, scientific, and social challenge of the 21st century. Meeting this challenge will require a substantial increase in crop productivity in the face of increasing climate variability and depleted water resources and soil degradation. At the same time, new approaches are needed to regenerate soil carbon (C), enabling greater moisture and nutrient retention, and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG; i.e., C02, CH4 and N20) emissions.

The key to meeting both of these challenges is to improve root structure and to enhance the ability of plants to access water and nutrients, and increase the efficiency with which plant-fixed C is stabilized as soil organic matter (SOM).

Controlling root structure and function in the context of crop productivity is the last frontier in our understanding of plant growth regulation. While the power of genetics and molecular biology have revealed many important insights on root development in model plants under defined growth conditions, progress in applying these findings to crop plants in the field have been exceedingly limited.


The Root Pulling Force (RPF) mechanism is an automated apparatus used to assist in field-based root phenotyping.  It is designed to collect data on the amount of force that is required to pull a plant (including all or part of its root system) from the earth.  It has been shown that root pulling force can be correlated to phenotypes of the plant’s root system architecture. 

In order to collect RPF data, the mechanism is designed with a plant grasping mechanism that can grasp a portion of the plant that is above ground (e.g. the stalk) throughout the pulling process. The grasping mechanism moves automatically into position around a plant prior to grasping the plant stalk. Once in position, the mechanism grasps the plant and pulls vertically, extracting the plant from the soil. Throughout the pulling sequence the force exerted by the mechanism on the plant is measured. After the pulling sequence is complete, the grasping mechanism releases the plant and is retracted to a platform that can travel in the area between rows of plants, allowing this mechanism to be easily moved through a planted field from plot to plot.


  • Performs collection of root-pulling force (RPF) phenotype more easily and efficiently
  • Cleanly removes roots for further analysis of root traits (below ground biomass, structure, etc.)
  • Streamlines data collection, increasing quality and quantity


  • Study of agricultural crop root structures and function
  • Provide root trait data to crop breeders to aid in selections
Last Updated: October 2023

Available for Exclusive Licensing
TRL: 8


John McKay
Caleb Alvarado
Guy Babbitt
Kyle Palmiscno
Christopher Turner
Bryce Whitehill

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Jessy McGowan