Root traits as drivers of plant and ecosystem functioning: current understanding, pitfalls and future research needs

Grégoire T. Freschet (Lead / Corresponding author), Catherine Roumet, Louise H. Comas, Monique Weemstra, A. Glyn Bengough, Boris Rewald, Richard D. Bardgett, Gerlinde B. De Deyn, David Johnson, Jitka Klimešová, Martin Lukac, M. Luke McCormack, Ina C. Meier, Loïc Pagès, Hendrik Poorter, Ivan Prieto, Nina Wurzburger, Marcin Zadworny, Agnieszka Bagniewska-Zadworna, Elison B. BlancaflorIvano Brunner, Arthur Gessler, Sarah E. Hobbie, Colleen M. Iversen, Liesje Mommer, Catherine Picon-Cochard, Johannes A. Postma, Laura Rose, Peter Ryser, Michael Scherer-Lorenzen, Nadejda A. Soudzilovskaia, Tao Sun, Oscar J. Valverde-Barrantes, Alexandra Weigelt, Larry M. York, Alexia Stokes

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

246 Citations (Scopus)
343 Downloads (Pure)


The effects of plants on the biosphere, atmosphere and geosphere are key determinants of terrestrial ecosystem functioning. However, despite substantial progress made regarding plant belowground components, we are still only beginning to explore the complex relationships between root traits and functions. Drawing on the literature in plant physiology, ecophysiology, ecology, agronomy and soil science, we reviewed 24 aspects of plant and ecosystem functioning and their relationships with a number of root system traits, including aspects of architecture, physiology, morphology, anatomy, chemistry, biomechanics and biotic interactions. Based on this assessment, we critically evaluated the current strengths and gaps in our knowledge, and identify future research challenges in the field of root ecology. Most importantly, we found that belowground traits with the broadest importance in plant and ecosystem functioning are not those most commonly measured. Also, the estimation of trait relative importance for functioning requires us to consider a more comprehensive range of functionally relevant traits from a diverse range of species, across environments and over time series. We also advocate that establishing causal hierarchical links among root traits will provide a hypothesis-based framework to identify the most parsimonious sets of traits with the strongest links on functions, and to link genotypes to plant and ecosystem functioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1123-1158
Number of pages36
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
Early online date7 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


  • below‐ground ecology
  • ecosystem properties and processes
  • environmental gradients
  • plant functions
  • root traits
  • spatial and temporal scales
  • trait covariation
  • trait causal relationships
  • belowground ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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