Roots take a DIY approach for plant growth, study finds

By Nina Jungman

Plants, like animals, must fight to survive. Unlike animals, the key to the plants’ survival lies in their leaves and roots.

An international collaboration including Oscar Valverde-Barrantes, a researcher at FIU’s Institute of Environment, explored whether plant roots make tradeoffs to survive.

Originally, the team thought roots would work much more like leaves. They thought roots would need to strike a balance between drawing enough resources for the plant to grow and hardening themselves against predators or disease.

Surprisingly, the findings showed roots take a much more do-it-yourself approach. Thick-rooted plants actually evolved to be better hosts for their fungal partners that collect nutrients for them. Thin-rooted species collect resources on their own.         

This study, led by Joanna Bergmann from the Freie Universitat Berlin, leveraged the largest dataset on root traits in the world with information from over 1,800 species of plants. Collaborators included 20 experts from Europe and the United States who set the stage for future work in root ecology, providing a new framework for understanding root function and performance. 

Protium Eugenia Root
Different types of roots.

Scientists now know root trait variation must be studied as if it were an independent organ separate from its aboveground cousins.

Additional recent efforts from Valverde-Barrantes have helped to understand the steps over time that plants undergo to show the differences in the thickness of roots we find today and how that affects the way plants use carbon dioxide to create organic material.

This research was recently published in Science Advances. Oscar Valverde-Barrantes and Candice Allouch contributed to this story.