Background and Aims Plant roots growing underground are critical for soil resource acquisition, anchorage and plant–environment interactions. In wheat (Triticum aestivum), however, the target root traits to improve yield potential still remain largely unknown. This study aimed to identify traits of seedling root system architecture (RSA) associated with yield and yield components in 226 recombinant inbred lines (RILs) derived from a cross between the bread wheat Triticum aestivum ‘Forno’ (small, wide root system) and spelt Triticum spelta ‘Oberkulmer’ (large, narrow root system).

Methods A ‘pouch and wick’ high-throughput phenotyping pipeline was used to determine the RSA traits of 13-day-old RIL seedlings. Two field experiments and one glasshouse experiment were carried out to investigate the yield, yield components and phenology, followed by identification of quantitative trait loci (QTLs).

Key Results There was substantial variation in RSA traits between genotypes. Seminal root number and total root length were both positively associated with grains m–2, grains per spike, above-ground biomass m–2 and grain yield. More seminal roots and longer total root length were also associated with delayed maturity and extended grain filling, likely to be a consequence of more grains being defined before anthesis. Additionally, the maximum width of the root system displayed positive relationships with spikes m–2, grains m–2 and grain yield. Ten RILs selected for the longest total roots exhibited the same effects on yield and phenology as described above, compared with the ten lines with the shortest total roots. Genetic analysis revealed 38 QTLs for the RSA, and QTL coincidence between the root and yield traits was frequently observed, indicating tightly linked genes or pleiotropy, which concurs with the results of phenotypic correlation analysis.

Conclusions Based on the results from the Forno × Oberkulmer population, it is proposed that vigorous early root growth, particularly more seminal roots and longer total root length, is important to improve yield potential, and should be incorporated into wheat ideotypes in breeding.

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