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Annual pasture legume species can vary more than 3-fold in their critical external phosphorus (P) requirement (i.e. P required for 90% of maximum yield). In this work we investigated the link between root morphology, P acquisition and critical external P requirement among pasture species. The root morphology acclimation of five annual pasture legumes and one grass species to low soil P availability was assessed in a controlled-environment study. The critical external P requirement of the species was low (Dactylis glomerata L., Ornithopus compressus L., Ornithopus sativus Brot.), intermediate (Biserrula pelecinus L., Trifolium hirtum All.) or high (Trifolium subterraneum L.). Root hair cylinder volumes (a function of root length, root hair length and average root diameter) were estimated in order to assess soil exploration and its impact on P uptake. Most species increased soil exploration in response to rates of P supply near or below their critical external P requirement. The legumes differed in how they achieved their maximum root hair cylinder volume. The main variables were high root length density, long root hairs and/or high specific root length. However, total P uptake per unit surface area of the root hair cylinder was similar for all species at rates of P supply below critical P. Species that maximised soil exploration by root morphology acclimation were able to prolong access to P in moderately P-deficient soil. However, among the species studied, it was those with an intrinsic capacity for a high root-hair-cylinder surface area (i.e. long roots and long root hairs) that achieved the lowest critical P requirement.
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