Saturday, February 13, 2010

The competing constraints on roots

Cross section of a Dicanthelium acuminatum root.

Roots have a few important jobs. Anchor a plant. Acquire water. Acquire nitrogen. Sometimes store carbon.

There is no reason that a root system that is optimized to acquire water would also be optimized to acquire nitrogen. Yet, what would a root system that was optimized to acquire water look like vs. one that was optimized to acquire nitrogen?

There are some contingencies here, but it's a good segue to think about how roots are built, no less root systems. There are multiple tradeoffs that would be selected for in different environments. Deep or shallow. Narrow vs. extensive. Thick vs. thin. Stele vs. cortex. Large xylem vs. small xylem. Many small cells vs. few large cells.

If form follows function, one should be able to deduce function from form. We can do this with many other traits. A thick waxy cuticle on a leaf generally reduces water or nutrient loss. Thick bark often protects from fire. Thorns deter browsing mammals.

Yet, if we were to look at the cross-section of a root, what could we tell?

Here's a cross-section of a Sorghastrum nutans root:

Now here's one for Penstemon tubiflorus:

Some of the differences are obvious. Penstemon has a much larger cortex. Sorghastrum larger xylem vessels. But can we deduce their differences in ecology? Which one is more drought tolerant? Which one is the better competitor for nitrogen? Is one more dependent on mycorrhizal fungi?

Wahl and Ryser were the first to try to link up root cross-sections with function, finding good linkages with other traits like plant height and RGR. It's been 10 years since they published their paper on grass root cross sections. No one ever followed their work up.

One of the keys, if not linchpins, to understanding the evolution of plants is waiting for us just under the surface.

Wahl, S. and P. Ryser. 2000. Root tissue structure is linked to ecological strategies of grasses. New Phytologist 148:459-471.

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