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Plants: From roots to mouth

Understanding how climate change impacts our ecosystem

Plants are a fascinating object of study. Many researchers study them to understand the effects of climate change on our ecosystem, but also to try to predict how it could react to future changes. One of these research fields is called ecohydrology. Let’s take a look at how researchers study tiny plant mouths and how they find ways to observe the hidden half of plants – the roots.

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Stomata – tiny plant mouths

A real photo of stomata under the microscope in Stan Schymanski’s lab

Plants take up CO2 for photosynthesis, but also lose water at the same time. Stomata are the connection between the water cycle and vegetation: Water leaves soil and enters the plant through the roots and then goes into the air through these little holes. What do researchers study them for?

At the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), ecohydrologist Stan Schymanski and his team study various aspects of how plants interact with their surroundings – for example by looking at the plant mouths, in science terms known as ‘stomata’.

His team investigates how climate change and environmental change in general may effect vegetation and water resources. In practice, this involves looking at how leaves interact with the atmosphere, how the roots interact with the soil, and how the plant transports water. Based on this, a mathematical model is created – Stan explains:

“It’s an abstract, mathematical, representation of an ecological system. It can for example cover an individual plant, a population, or an ecological community. We develop models to gain a better understanding of the real system and to make predictions based on theoretical understanding.”

On a local level, Stan has for example worked with the city of Differdange to help them protect their trees following droughts.

For the last years, Dr Stan Schymanski’s research has been made possible by a 2 MEUR grant from the FNR, through the FNR’s ATTRACT programme, which gives promising young scientist support to set up their own research group in Luxembourg.

The hidden half of plants

The hidden part of plants – the root systems – play a vital role for plants, and for our ecosystem, because plants store carbon in the soil. But how do researchers even study roots, and why?

Scientists in Luxembourg are working to understand how roots are affected by changes in water availability, like after a drought or heavy rain.

“One of the main challenges remaining in root science is to understand how dynamically roots adapt when exposed to quick changes in water availability around them, for example after a summer thunderstorm. Roots can adapt to changes in moisture availability occurring over the course of the seasons: but how do roots react whenever these changes occur withing days or even hours?”

asks plant biologist Samuele Ceolin, a young researcher who is part of Stan Schymanski’s group at LIST.

As part of his PhD, Samuele carried out experiments on maize plants where he was able to manipulate – in space and time – the amount of water available to the plant.

“By applying water pulses in different parts of the soil in contact with the roots and in different moments in time, I could monitor if and how the roots adapted their growth according to daily changes in water availability.”

The results so far look promising, seemingly indicating that roots do adapt fast and dynamically whenever the conditions in soil moisture quickly vary along the soil profile. These results could contribute to establishing root dynamic responses in improved plant breeding programmes and vegetation modelling.

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