The device (SMART - A tool kit for Sustainable Method of Agriculture using Root Transition) will consist of a transparent polypropylene box with agar or polyacrylamide-based media serving as matrix for seedling root growth. The central region of the media surface will serve as a germinating point of a seed where seedling root will start penetrating downward through the media. Four narrow and transparent tubes with perforated walls will be placed at equal depth each in the four corners of the box in such a way that they intersect the media halfway from the media surface to the base of the box and create a capillary. These capillaries will be used for three different purposes. First, they can be used as port of entry for polyacrylamide based and chemically defined beads serving as fertilizers. Four different formulations of fertilizers can be tested at a time. Upon addition through the capillary, these fertilizer beads will get lodged halfway through the media and adjacent to the walls in four spatially defined regions of the box. Once in contact with the media, they will slowly diffuse through the media to create a chemical gradient. The rate and direction of the movement along with the developmental characteristics of the seedling root can be used as a signal of their propensity for the test fertilizers. Secondly these capillaries can serve as an entry point for four different microbial consortia made from sporulated microbes. Such microbial consortium will be activated once in direct contact of the media and start multiplying creating four different microenvironments within the box. The health and affinity of the seedling root towards these microenvironments can help predict the optimal combination of microbes that can augment root growth. Finally, the perforated walls of the tubes would serve as channels for aeration of the media supporting root growth and development. The inner wall of the tubes can also be coated with chemical receptors that can trap ligands such as specific volatiles including root leachates and exudates that are indicator of root health and physiology. Chemical modification of the receptors can be done such that the ligand-receptor reaction can result in a specific color in the visible range. The qualitative and quantitative estimation of the color can predict the root physiology. Such a modification will complement the morphological data (rate and direction of root growth along with developmental characteristics) with physiological perspectives to reaffirm the choice of optimal test fertilizer and test consortia of microbes.
The SMART device can be enhanced by several other modification to precisely predict the factors that decides performance of a specific plant variety in the field. A bead of a certain diameter made from silica gel or hydrophilic polymers can be placed in the center of the media. The change in diameter of the bead with time can be used to extrapolate the change in water content of the growing media. Similarly, a strip of pH paper can be placed vertically along the length of the media on all four walls of the box and the base to estimate the change in pH at different lengths of root growth and in different physiochemical and biological environment. A volume of soil from agricultural field that is equal the volume of the media can be repeatedly sieved, soaked, washed, and the extract can be concentrated and added to the agar or polyacrylamide to mimic the nutrient level of the natural soil. Such a media can be used as control along with the defined media as described above to compare the seedling root growth. Such comparative data can be used to tailor fertilizer and microbial consortium for a specific plant variety in a particular environment or growth conditions.
Finally, a smart phone can be used to image the progression of root growth (rate, length, thickness, branches) along with the changes of other factors such as color change of tubes, intensity of the color, pH stripes and diameter of the hydrophilic bead at different time points. Such data can be easily analyzed by using computer algorithms and can yield a score to predict the ideal physical, chemical and biological conditions for the performance of a plant variety in the field. Comparing the scores of seedling roots grown in defined and undefined media (derived from soil extracts) the algorithm can suggest remedial measures and predict combination of fertilizers and microbial consortium for optimal output from the field in an environmentally sustainable way.