Jian-Yong Wang: What role do clonal plants play in our ecosystems?

In this new post, Jian-Yong Wang, a new ecological researcher working at Northeast Normal University, China, shares his paper: A meta-analysis of effects of physiological integration in clonal plants under homogeneous vs. heterogeneous environments—recently shortlisted for the Haldane Prize for Early Career Researchers.

Jian-Yong Wang in Perth, Western Australia, during his PhD studies (A joint PhD study program between LZU and UWA). Credits: Yu-Peng Feng.

About the paper

Clonal plants, i.e. those able to reproduce vegetatively, play important roles in many ecosystems. Connected individuals (ramets) can translocate and share resources, such as photosynthates, water, and nutrients, and this resource sharing (physiological integration) may have an effect on the subsequent growth of clonal plants. However, comprehensive evaluation of the impacts of physiological integration on the performance of clonal plants is an understudied area, especially in heterogeneous vs. homogeneous conditions.

The potential mechanisms for restoration of degraded grasslands by using clonal integration and the spatial expansion characteristics of clonal plants. Credits: Jian-Yong Wang and Xin-Yue Feng.

We synthesized published studies that examined the roles of resource sharing in clonal plants, both in heterogeneous conditions, where at least one environmental factor such as light, water, and nutrients is spatially non-uniformly distributed, and in homogeneous conditions, where all environmental factors are spatially uniformly distributed. In heterogeneous conditions, resource sharing greatly increased the growth of recipient ramets that imported resources from their interconnected donor ramets. Additionally, resource sharing had no effect on the growth of donor ramets that exported resources to recipient ramets, thereby enhancing growth of the whole clonal system (i.e. recipient and donor ramets together). In homogeneous conditions, resource sharing greatly increased growth of the recipient ramets; however, the growth of donor ramets slightly decreased. In spite of this, the growth of the whole clonal system also increased.

Pot experiments were conducted in a greenhouse to test the effects of clonal integration on root exudates, rhizosphere microbes, and soil nutrient availabilities. Credits: Jian-Yong Wang and Quan-Hui Ma.

Our meta-analysis evaluated the effects of physiological integration on the performance of clonal plants, subsequently finding that physiological integration plays a strong role in clonal plant physiology, morphology, and growth, especially for recipient ramets in heterogeneous environments. Physiological integration may have contributed to the widespread prevalence of clonal plants in nature and their dominance in many ecosystems such as grasslands, wetlands, and tundra. It may also play an important role in invasion success of alien clonal plants and maintaining functions and stability of ecosystems where clonal plants are abundant. Another important finding from this study is that it provides strong evidence for the potential use of clonal plants for restoring degraded ecosystems.

About the research

It is important to understand the roles of clonal plant species in natural ecosystems such as grasslands, wetlands, and deserts. In our research project, we identified that clonal integration plays an important role in spatial expansion, recruitment of new ramets, and fitness improvements of clonal plant species in heterogeneous and poor conditions. Furthermore, this research also provided us with enough information to conduct degraded grassland restoration by using clonal plant species.

Jian-Yong Wang, conducting a vegetation survey in the Songnen grassland, Northeast China. Credits: Quan-Hui Ma.

Based on this meta-analysis study, two pot experiments and two field experiments (short- and long-term observation platforms) were designed and conducted. On one hand, I am now working on research which utilises micro perspectives to reveal the effects of clonal integration on root morphology, resource uptake abilities, root exudates, and rhizosphere microbes. As plant roots are in close contact with soil, roots and their exudates are the main sites where the clonal integration effects of plants on the soil and soil microbes can be observed. This study could help us to understand the effect of microbial regulation mechanisms on the performance of the new ramets of clonal plants.  

On the other hand, I am also working on macro perspective research to reveal the effects of clonal integration on plant community and ecosystem functions. This research focuses on areas such as plant diversities, nutrient availability, and soil carbon sequestration. This research might help us to better understand the roles of clonal plants in community and ecosystem levels. Additionally, it could also reveal the effects of clonal integration on the restoration of degraded grassland. 

An aerial view of the Songnen Plain, Northeast China, with its saline-alkali patchy degraded grassland, and the spatial expansion of L. chinensis, a local dominant clonal plant species, into saline-alkali soil patches. Credits: Jian-Yong Wang and Quan-Hui Ma.

About the author

I graduated from Lanzhou University (LZU) in China, in December 2016, and received my doctoral degree in the field of Agricultural Ecology (the title of my PhD thesis is Evolvement of physio-ecological characteristics and mechanism of yield formation of dryland wheat). During my PhD studies, I have been to the University of Western Australia (UWA) as a joint PhD student between LZU and UWA, and published a series of scientific papers related to physio-ecological responses of dryland wheat to drought stress. I was very interested in ecology, with an especially keen interest in natural ecosystems; therefore, I applied and obtained a postdoctoral position in the Institute of Grassland Science, Northeast Normal University, China, after graduation (Jan 2018 to Dec 2020). The research aspect of my postdoctoral project at this institute is related to restoration of degraded-grassland ecosystems.

Jian-Yong Wang, conducting a field experiment in the Hulunbuir grassland, Northeast China. Credits: Yi-Ming Liu.

In recent years, I have visited several types of grassland around the world, such as the alpine meadow in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the desert and typical grasslands on the Inner Mongolian Plateau, and the Songnen grasslands in China, the Masai Mara and Serengeti savannas in East Africa, and the rangelands in Australia. Whilst I enjoyed the fantastic scenery of these grasslands, the adverse effects of grassland degradation also deeply affects me. As a grasslands ecological researcher, I believe I should be dedicating myself to restoring and protecting grasslands. Encouragingly, the United Nations (UN) declared 2021–2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, calling for society to dedicate more attention and effort to the restoration of degraded ecosystems. Moreover, the Chinese Government has also adopted a series of policies and measures to protect and restore degraded grasslands. These policies greatly encouraged my decision to develop a research career focusing on grassland restoration. Currently, I have a research position in the same institute and I will continue to conduct studies related to the restoration and management of degraded grasslands.

Enjoyed the blog? Read the research here.

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