Background Recent advances in imaging techniques now make it possible to visualize the biogeochemical and physical environment around the roots, the rhizosphere. Detailed images of pore space geometry and water content dynamics around roots have demonstrated the heterogeneity of the rhizosphere compared with the soil far from the roots. These findings have inspired new models of root water uptake which aim to describe such small-scale heterogeneity. However, the question remains of how far these image-based findings have really advanced our understanding of how roots extract water from soils.
Scope The rhizosphere processes affecting root water uptake are reviewed. Special attention is dedicated to the role of mucilage exuded by roots. Mucilage increases the soil moisture at negative water potentials and it keeps the rhizosphere wet when plants take up water, possibly maintaining the hydraulic connection between roots and soil. However, mucilage becomes viscous and hydrophobic upon severe drying and it limits the water fluxes across the rhizosphere during the rewetting phase. The role of mucilage in maintaining the hydraulic contact between the root surface and the surrounding soil, thereby softening the drops in water potential around the roots in dry soils, remains to be demonstrated.
Conclusion Despite detailed images of water content, water fluxes and soil structure in the rhizosphere, a general understanding of how the rhizosphere affects root water uptake is still lacking. The missing elements of the puzzle are the gradient in water potential around roots. Measurements of the xylem water potential at varying soil water potentials and transpiration rates supported by numerical models of root water uptake would allow the estimation of the water potential across the rhizosphere. Such measurements are crucial to comprehend how water enters the roots.