Building a better foundation: improving root-trait measurements to understand and model plant and ecosystem processes

M. Luke McCormack, Dali Guo, Colleen M. Iversen, Weile Chen, David M. Eissenstat, Christopher W. Fernandez, Le Li, Chengen Ma, Zeqing Ma, Hendrik Poorter, Peter B. Reich, Marcin Zadworny, Amy Zanne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

163 Scopus citations


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. Here we discuss three underappreciated areas where focused measurements of fine-root traits can make significant contributions to ecosystem science. These 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 below-ground 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-37
Number of pages11
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • below ground
  • ecological modeling
  • nutrient acquisition
  • plant functional traits
  • root economics spectrum (RES)
  • trait syndromes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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