In Insights we discover the story (and the people) behind a recent publication in Functional Ecology: what inspired the authors to do the research, how did the project develop and what wider impact might the work have?
In this week’s Insights, Jitka Klimešová, Head of Trebon’s section of the Institute of Botany of the Czech Academy of Sciences, talks about how she integrates coarse and ‘non-acquisitive’ root traits to achieve a more comprehensive and realistic view of belowground plant and ecosystem functioning. This was the focus of her recent review paper, Belowground plant functional ecology: Towards an integrated perspective (Klimešová et al, 2018).
How has your career developed over the last few years and what is your current position?
I am senior researcher at the Institute of Botany, Czech Academy of Sciences in Trebon. Since last year I have an adjunct position at the Department of Botany, Charles University in Prague.
How did you get involved in studying roots, and why are they so interesting the belowground parts of plant?
After some years spent researching temperate, species-rich meadows and Arctic systems, I returned to the area of functional morphology. With colleagues from Masaryk University in Brno and at South-Bohemian University in Ceske Budejovice, we are assembling available information on plant distribution, occurrence in plant communities and on plant functional traits of the Czech flora into a database, Pladias. My group is interested in transferring data on clonal and bud bank traits previously deposited in CLO-PLA database to the new user friendly database. The CLO-PLA database is a freely available depository of all plant species from the flora of the Czech Republic and surrounding countries with referenced information about vegetative growth, clonality and bud bank, also showing drawings of belowground plant organs. I have been working on developing this database with my colleagues since the end of my PhD in 1993. The primary motivation behind my work is to explain diversity of clonal growth organs to researchers studying plant clonality. We want to show the vast diversity of clonal growth organs, highlighting those modes of clonal growth that were understudied. The result of our effort was the CLO-PLA database. Moreover, further research is focused on the clonal growth mode which is totally overlooked: adventitious sprouting from roots. My group have spent on this topic nearly two decades publishing dozens of papers.
Recently researchers have increasingly focussed on the root systems of plant, with a large focus on fine roots as these are linked to nutrient uptake. The results from your paper suggest that all these other parts of the root system are equally, if not more, important for the functioning of the root system. Can I safely conclude that your results also suggest that functional approaches should focus beyond just single functions?
In recent years, functional ecologists have recognized fine roots and their absorptive function as an important yet understudied part of plant strategy. We agree with this point of view, but we wanted to go further and consider other plant functions connected with belowground organs. Our understanding of plant strategies will profit from knowing whether fine roots are connected to coarse roots or to rhizomes, whether these organs are short-lived or long lived, what the functional meaning of biomass allocated in different organs is, and which are their other key functions. By focusing only on fine roots and their acquisitive function we are overlooking non-acquisitive functions provided by belowground organs such as space occupancy, clonal multiplication, competitive ability and resprouting. These functions themselves but also interrelationships among them and with acquisitive function deserve better attention.
Of course, it’s not only plant strategy we are interested in; there is ecosystem function, where understanding is limited by ignoring, for example, carbohydrate stored in belowground coarse organs. We know virtually nothing about the afterlife of rhizomes of herbaceous plants. They may live for decades and store large amount of starch. What happens when their oldest parts are decaying? Are carbohydrates stored in there transported and reutilized or are they let to decompose?
We know that studying fine roots is challenging. Is the study of other belowground organs easier?
The field of plant functional ecology is so broad that it is not surprizing that people tend to specialize, but they still should be aware of the context they are working in and consider other functions. And, of course, we want encourage people to look beyond fine roots and mycorrhizal associations, and study functions associated with other organs. We acknowledge that these less studied functions are not easy to handle (to collect traits for, to test functionality of traits, etc.). One of the tasks of our research team is indeed to help researchers interested on these functions, and together with a worldwide team we are preparing a handbook of standardized protocols for collecting belowground traits. We are also organizing PhD courses focused on their practical assessment.
What do you like most about being an ecologist? What could you happily do without?
I like learning the lectures that nature teaches us; alas, we have the tendency to ignore them. I could do happily without paper work.
What achievement are you most proud of?
I am proud of what we did for enhancing awareness about the importance of clonal and bud bank traits among ecologists, but I feel that is still not enough. This has been our mission since 1993, when we decided to show the great diversity of clonal growth organs, and this task is not yet fulfilled.
How do you balance work and downtime?
Till recently, the balance was kept by the necessity of taking care of my four children, but as they are already leaving home it is becoming harder. Happily, I have hobbies that help me balancing science and life. I am writing a blog in Czech and I am creating small graphical arts (linocuts) about my work.