BER launches Environmental System Science Program. Visit our new website under construction!

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Building a Better Foundation: Improving Root-Trait Measurements to Understand and Model Plant and Ecosystem Processes
Published: March 13, 2017
Posted: May 10, 2017

Priorities for capturing root trait variation in model frameworks.

The Science
Fine roots play important roles in acquiring soil nutrients and water for plant growth. However, it has been difficult to determine how traits of fine roots change across environments and how these changes impact plant and ecosystem processes.

The Impact
The scientists highlight barriers limiting knowledge of how fine roots work in ecosystems and, importantly, suggest tractable ways in which to possibly overcome those barriers. Refocusing their efforts to measure multiple aspects of roots traits and function in ways that can be rigorously compared across species will rapidly improve understanding of terrestrial ecosystems.

Trait-based approaches provide a useful framework to investigate plant strategies for resource acquisition, growth, and competition, as well as plant impacts on ecosystem processes. Despite significant progress capturing trait variation within and among stems and leaves, identification of trait syndromes within fine-root systems and between fine roots and other plant organs is limited. This study discusses three underappreciated areas where focused measurements of fine-root traits can make significant contributions to ecosystem science. These areas include assessment of spatiotemporal variation in fine-root traits, integration of mycorrhizal fungi into fine root–trait frameworks, and the need for improved scaling of traits measured on individual roots to ecosystem-level processes. Progress in each of these areas is providing opportunities to revisit how belowground processes are represented in terrestrial biosphere models. Targeted measurements of fine-root traits with clear linkages to ecosystem processes and plant responses to environmental change are strongly needed to reduce empirical and model uncertainties. Further identifying how and when suites of root and whole-plant traits are coordinated or decoupled will ultimately provide a powerful tool for modeling plant form and function at local and global scales.

BER Program Manager
Daniel Stover
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science, SC-23.1 (301-903-0289)

Principal Investigator
M. Luke McCormack
Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of Minnesota
St. Paul, MN 55108

The authors acknowledge support from the Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences (TES) program of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science; the New Phytologist Trust; and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) for supporting the workshop where the initial ideas for this manuscript were developed.

McCormack, M.L., et al. "Building a better foundation: Improving root-trait measurements to understand and model plant and ecosystem processes." New Phytologist 215(1), 27–37 (2017). [DOI:10.1111/nph.14459].

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

Division: SC-33.1 Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

Recent Highlights

Mar 23, 2021
Molecular Connections from Plants to Fungi to Ants
Lipids transfer energy and serve as an inter-kingdom communication tool in leaf-cutter ants&rsqu [more...]

Mar 19, 2021
Microbes Use Ancient Metabolism to Cycle Phosphorus
Microbial cycling of phosphorus through reduction-oxidation reactions is older and more widespre [more...]

Feb 22, 2021
Warming Soil Means Stronger Microbe Networks
Soil warming leads to more complex, larger, and more connected networks of microbes in those soi [more...]

Jan 27, 2021
Labeling the Thale Cress Metabolites
New data pipeline identifies metabolites following heavy isotope labeling.

Analysis [more...]

Aug 31, 2020
Novel Bacterial Clade Reveals Origin of Form I Rubisco

  • All plant biomass is sourced from the carbon-fixing enzyme Rub [more...]

List all highlights (possible long download time)