Plant Competition for Underground Real Estate Affects Carbon Storage and Food Production

Thanks to Liana Wait, graduate student, Princeton University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology for this article. You can see it in it's original form here. You might have observed plants competing for sunlight — the way they stretch upwards and outwards to block each other’s access to the sun’s rays — but out of sight, another type of competition is happening underground. In the same way that you might change the way you forage for free snacks in the break room when your colleagues are present, plants change their use of underground resources when they’re planted alongside other plants. In a paper published last month in Science (and featured on the cover), an international team of researchers led by Princeton graduate student Ciro Cabal sheds light on the underground life of plants. Their research used a combination of modeling and a greenhouse experiment to discover whether plants invest differently in root structures when planted alone versus when planted alongside a neighbor. “This study was a lot of fun because it combined several different kinds of mind candy to reconcile seemingly contradictory results in the literature: a clever experiment, a new method for observing root systems in intact soils and simple mathematical theory,

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