Rooting for Water

Beneath the dusty soil and arid earth

Your tentacles branch outwards;

Driven by an unseen architect

To create multifaceted monoliths

Of gnarly twine and knotted rope.

Your suppurated fingertips

Dowse for unseen traces of

Ancient reservoirs and

Underground lakes,

Recklessly reaching through

Unseen valleys and hidden troughs.

Relentlessly you twist and turn

Through broken pottery and

Decomposing bodies;

Greedily gobbling down any remnants

Of moisture that trickle

Through your greasy claws.

You take a sharp left through

The acidic limestone of a

Long-abandoned quarry,

And before you are able to


You breach the surface –

Blackened fingers going limp

As they blister and fester in the

Midday sun.

You want to turn back,

But the architect has gone.

Leaving you cottonmouthed

In your final withdrawal.

‪”Relentlessly you twist and turn.”

This science poem is inspired by recent research that has discovered how plant roots sense the availability of moisture in the soil and then adapt their shape to optimise their acquisition of water.

Plants need roots in order to acquire both water and soluble nutrients from the soil, both of which are essential for plant growth. As the changing global climate makes acquiring moisture from the soil more difficult, plants are able to adapt to different soil moisture conditions by altering their root structure, but until now it was unsure how this was done.

Root branches only form when in direct contact with soil moisture using an adaptive response termed ‘hydropatterning’. This new research has found that hydropatterning is controlled by a gene called ARF7; plant roots lacking ARF7 are no longer able to hydropattern. Furthermore, when plant roots are exposed to moisture ARF7 remains active and promotes root branching, but when the roots are exposed to air, ARF7 is modified and becomes inactive, blocking root branching in the process and thus making the future acquisition of water more difficult. This discovery could enable crops to be bred which are more adaptive to changes in climate conditions, such as water scarcity, thereby helping with future food security.

You can hear an audio version of this poem here:

1 thought on “Rooting for Water”

  1. Thank you John for these incredibly kind words – it means a lot coming from you.

    I have met Stephen a couple of times and am a big fan of his work, likewise of the SAW project which was a huge influence for me when we set up our SciArt unit at MMU.

    Thank you for taking the time to write me such a lovely comment, and please do stay in touch. 😊



Leave a Comment