Frontiers in Plant Science
Frontiers Research Foundation
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When exploring the impact of resource availability on perennial plants, artificial treatments often apply conditions homogeneously across space and time, even though this rarely reflects conditions in natural systems. To investigate the effects of spatially heterogeneous soil moisture on morphological and physiological responses, trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) saplings were used in a split-pot experiment. Following the division of the root systems, saplings were established for a full year and then subjected to either heterogeneous (portion of the root system exposed to non-lethal drought) or homogeneous (whole root system exposed to non-lethal drought or well-watered) treatments. Above- and belowground growth and non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) reserves (soluble sugars and starch) were measured to determine how allocation of reserves and mass between and within organs changed in response to variation in soil moisture availability. In contrast to saplings in the homogeneous drought treatment, which experienced reduced shoot growth, leaf abscission and fine root loss, saplings exposed to the heterogeneous conditions maintained similar aboveground growth and increased root system allocation compared to well-watered saplings. Interestingly under heterogeneous soil moisture conditions, the portion of the root system that was resource limited had no root dieback and increased carbon reserve concentrations, while the portion of the root system that was not resource limited added new roots (30% increase). Overall, saplings subjected to the heterogeneous soil moisture regime over-compensated belowground, both in mass and NSC reserves. These results indicate that the differential allocation of mass or reserves between above- and belowground organs, but also within the root system can occur. While the mechanisms and processes involved in these patterns are not clear, these responses could be interpreted as adaptations and acclimations to preserve the integrity of the entire sapling and suggests that different portions of plant organs might respond autonomously to local conditions. This study provides further appreciation of the complexity of the mechanisms by which plants manage heterogeneous conditions and offers evidence that spatial and temporal variability of resource availability, particularly belowground, needs to be accounted for when extrapolating and modeling stress responses at larger temporal and spatial scales.
Hart AT, Merlin M, Wiley E and Landhäusser SM (2021) Splitting the Difference: Heterogeneous Soil Moisture Availability Affects Aboveground and Belowground Reserve and Mass Allocation in Trembling Aspen. Front. Plant Sci. 12:654159. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2021.654159