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 journalArticlepeer-review


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 literature in plant physiology, ecophysiology, ecology, agronomy and soil science, we review 24 aspects of plant and ecosystem functioning and their relationships with a number of traits of root systems, including aspects of architecture, physiology, morphology, anatomy, chemistry, biomechanics and biotic interactions. Based on this assessment, we critically evaluate the current strengths and gaps in our knowledge, and identify future research challenges in the field of root ecology. Most importantly, we found that below-ground traits with widest importance in plant and ecosystem functioning are not those most commonly measured. Also, the fair 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 strongest influence on the functions, and to link genotypes to plant and ecosystem functioning.

Original languageEnglish
JournalNew Phytologist
Early online date7 Nov 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Nov 2020


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

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