TopoRoot is a high-throughput computational method that computes fine-grained architectural traits from 3D X-ray CT images of field-excavated maize root crowns. These traits include the number, length, thickness, angle, tortuosity, and number of children for the roots at each level of the hierarchy.
Background: 3D imaging, such as X-ray CT and MRI, has been widely deployed to study plant root structures. Many computational tools exist to extract coarse-grained features from 3D root images, such as total volume, root number and total root length. However, methods that can accurately and efficiently compute fine-grained root traits, such as root number and geometry at each hierarchy level, are still lacking. These traits would allow biologists to gain deeper insights into the root system architecture (RSA). Results: We present TopoRoot, a high-throughput computational method that computes fine-grained architectural traits from 3D X-ray CT images of field-excavated maize root crowns. These traits include the number, length, thickness, angle, tortuosity, and number of children for the roots at each level of the hierarchy. TopoRoot combines state-of-the-art algorithms in computer graphics, such as topological simplification and geometric skeletonization, with customized heuristics for robustly obtaining the branching structure and hierarchical information. TopoRoot is validated on both real and simulated root images, and in both cases it was shown to improve the accuracy of traits over existing methods. We also demonstrate TopoRoot in differentiating a maize root mutant from its wild type segregant using fine-grained traits. TopoRoot runs within a few minutes on a desktop workstation for volumes at the resolution range of 400^3, without need for human intervention. Conclusions: TopoRoot improves the state-of-the-art methods in obtaining more accurate and comprehensive fine-grained traits of maize roots from 3D CT images. The automation and efficiency makes TopoRoot suitable for batch processing on a large number of root images. Our method is thus useful for phenomic studies aimed at finding the genetic basis behind root system architecture and the subsequent development of more productive crops.