Hao Chen: plants don’t store all trace elements equally

In his latest work, ‘Global resorption efficiencies of trace elements in leaves of terrestrial plants’, professor Hao Chen presents his findings on micronutrient resorption by plants, introduces his future plants in research and calls for collaborators in studying the role of plants in nutrient cycling.   

What’s your paper about?

Author Hao Chen, School of Ecology, Sun Yat-sen University, China

This paper reports the global pattern of leaf resorption of trace elements. Specifically, we extracted data from 53 published papers that have reported leaf resorption efficiencies of eight trace elements [i.e., copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), zinc (Zn), boron (B), manganese (Mn), sodium (Na), aluminium (Al), and iron (Fe)]. Based on these data, we calculated the mean leaf resorption efficiency of each element, and analysed the relationships between leaf resorption and climate factors (e.g., latitude, temperature, and precipitation) or between leaf resorption and leaf nutrient concentrations. The results shown in this paper enhance our understanding of the resorption and nutrient use strategy in plants.

How did you come up with the idea for it?

This study was motivated by a previous research that has reported the global resorption efficiencies of macronutrients, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. However, we noted that no study have reported the global resorption pattern of trace elements. Considering that trace elements also play important roles in the plant growth, we believe such a research is necessary.

What are the key messages of your article?

Hao collecting green leaves in a subtropical forest. Photo by Zhenchuan Wang.
Hao collecting green leaves in a subtropical forest. Photo by Zhenchuan Wang.

This study, for the first time, estimated the mean resorption efficiency of eight trace elements at the global scale. On average, the resorption efficiency from highest to lowest are Cu (30.3%), Mo (29.5%), Zn (19.5%), B (17.6%), Na (8.3%), Mn (1.6%), Fe (–24%) and Al (–55.6%). The negative resorption efficiency of Fe and Al means that these elements are not resorbed by plants but are accumulated in old leaves. We also found that climate factors and growth types can affect resorption of trace elements, but the effects were variable among elements. Our results highlight that structural elements (for the formation of plant tissue structure; i.e. B, Na, and Mn) and potentially toxic elements (i.e. Fe and Al) have relatively low or no leaf resorption, which should be fully considered in biogeochemical models.

What would you like to do next?

Next, we will focus on the question about how tree age affects leaf nutrient resorption. This topic is important but still not well studied. The results of previous studies are very inconsistent, with positive, negative or no effects. We have proposed several possible mechanisms (or hypotheses) to explain these inconsistent results, but we do not know whether these mechanisms really exist or not. Thus, we are designing experiments to examine them.

How did you get involved in ecology?

I’ve liked nature since I was a little boy. Graduate studies gave me an opportunity to study natural ecosystems. After I published the first scientific paper of my life, I realized that I fell in love with this whole research thing. I became confident that I could pursue this career and make it my life’s work.

What’s your current position?

I’m an associate Professor of School of Ecology of Sun Yat-sen University, in China. I teach our undergraduate students ecosystem ecology and global change ecology. My research centres around issues of ecosystem nutrient cycling and its responses to global changes, especially atmospheric nitrogen deposition. Leaf nutrient resorption is only one of our research focuses. Recently, we have also been studying the patterns of biological nitrogen fixation along altitudinal gradients in the tropics. We welcome collaboration with any scientists in the same field.

Read the article in full here.

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