What will climate change do to plants? The answer might be rooted in history

tree roots in tubes

When it comes to plant roots, the past may be able to hint at what the future holds.

A team of researchers led by FIU Institute of Environment botanist Oscar Valverde was the first to investigate how seed plant roots changed over the last 300 million years. Understanding fine roots may help predict belowground plant trends in response to ongoing climate change. Plants with thicker roots may stand to particularly benefit in the future if a warmer climate increases the availability of nutrients from leaf litter.

The team’s findings showed the most substantial changes in root structure came with evolutionary shifts to herbaceous habitats. Herbaceous plants, those that don’t have much wood, tend to have longer, less dense and finer roots. Those changes are common in all herbaceous plants independent of the fungal association, leaf performance or ancestry of the plant. More interestingly, these results contradict the traditional ideas of coevolution of roots with mycorrhizal fungi as the main factor influencing fine-root structure.

The research was recently published in the New Phytologist.