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Root functions are multiple and essential for plant growth and survival. They include nutrient and water acquisition, resource storage, support of symbiotic soil microbes and anchorage. At the ecosystem level, they contribute to soil structure and to the carbon and nutrient cycles.

Researchers of the IRNAS-CSIC, in collaboration with the University of Seville and the University of Cordoba, have studied the variation of 27 root traits (morphological, chemical and isotopic) in seven tree species planted in the Guadiamar Green Corridor (Seville, Spain). Three of the species are deciduous: white poplar (Populus alba), narrow-leafed ash (Fraxinus angustifolia) and hackberry (Celtis autralis). While the other four species are evergreen: stone pine (Pinus pinea), holm oak (Quercus ilex), wild olive (Olea europaea) and carob (Ceratonia siliqua).

The main variation trend observed in the root traits supports the “root economics spectrum” hypothesis. There is a trade-off between tree species having lighter roots and higher length per mass unit, which maximizes soil resource acquisition and thus they grow faster on favourable conditions. On the contrary, tree species with denser roots and lower specific length tend to have resource conservation and slower growth, on adverse conditions.

Besides the main trend, there are other dimensions reflecting the root multifunctionality. 1) The root carbon concentration was not correlated with the morphological variables. 2) the ability to bind trace elements (for example, Pb and Cd) to root cells tends to be associated with the plant tolerance to soil contamination by metals. 3) The fractionation of 15N in roots is a time-integrated trait of mycorrhizal mediated nutrition.

In general, roots and leaves are functionally coordinated. The fast acquisition and processing of water and nutrients by the roots must be coupled with fast acquisition and processing of carbon by leaves. However, there was strong discordance between roots and leaves, with regards to the accumulation of several trace elements.

Soil conditions, and metal contamination in particular, affect morphological and chemical traits of tree roots. There are reciprocal interactions and feedback processes between soil and tree roots.

A remarkable physiological trait for these tree roots is the capacity to diminish the availability of trace elements into the soil, in special of those potentially toxic (Cd, Pb, As). We recommend planting trees with high “phytostabilisation” potential to remediate metal-contaminated soils.

This study has been published in the April issue of the journal Plant and Soil:

Marañón, T., Navarro-Fernández, C. M., Gil-Martínez, M., Domínguez, M. T., Madejón, P., Villar, R. (2020). Variation in morphological and chemical traits of Mediterranean tree roots: linkage with leaf traits and soil conditions. Plant and Soil, 449: 389-403.

Interactions between plants and soil are responsible for providing numerous ecosystem services from forests, including carbon sequestration, protection from erosion, improved soil fertility and stabilization of contaminants.

In the XXV World Congress of the IUFRO (International Union of Forest Research Organizations), held at Curitiba, Brasil from September 29th to October 5th, a scientific session (number E8,d,g) was devoted to the topic “Plant-soil interactions in forests”.

1) Different tree species affect differently to soil properties. For example, soil pH underneath pines (Pinus pinea) and holm oaks (Quercus ilex) was lower than under other five tree species in the same study area. These soil pH differences have relevant consequences for the mobility of trace elements and their uptake by trees (Madejón et al., 2018, Catena 166: 34-43).

2) Soil mycobiota differed in diversity and composition under wild olive (Olea europaea), stone pine (Pinus pinea) and white poplar (Populus alba), and with adjacent treeless sites. The afforestation represented 100% increase of soil fungal diversity, compared with the remediated zones (only with pastures). A total of 6535 OTUs (operational taxonomic units) were estimated as the gamma diversity of soil fungi in the study area (Gil-Martínez et al., in preparation).

The functional diversity of soil fungi (according to the FUNGuild data base) was represented by three main functional groups: saprotrophs (68% of OTUs), pathogens/parasites (18%) and mycorrhizal fungi (12%). Within the mycorrhizal fungi group, arbuscular fungi were associated to soil samples under wild olive and treeless pastures, while ectomycorrhizal fungi were abundant in soil under poplar and pine.

3) The case of mycorrhizal fungi is relevant because of their symbiotic relations with trees. Ectomycorrhizal fungi communities were studied by sampling root tips of 40 holm oaks (Q. ilex) distributed along four sites of the Guadiamar Green Corridor. A total of 55 OTUs were identified, with average of 3.8 fungal species per tree. Soil properties influencing primarily the composition of mycorrhizal fungal communities were total soil carbon, and the concentration of Ca, Cu, Ni and Zn (López-García et al., 2018, Soil Biol Biochem 121: 202-211).

In turn, the composition of mycorrhizal fungal communities affected significantly the accumulation of P in leaves, and the transfer rate of Zn from soil to root (Gil-Martínez et al., 2018, Front Plant Sci : 1682).

4) Soil fungi have a relevant role degrading organic matter and cycling nutrients, by the action of extracellular enzymes. We have found that beta-glucosidase activity (enzyme contributing to cellulose degradation) was much higher in the soil under poplar and pines than in soil under wild olive or in pastures. A feedback process can be inferred, by which tree species influence composition and abundance of soil fungi, and the rate of enzyme activity, which in turn promote organic matter decomposition and release of nutrients, which are up-taken by trees (Gil-Martínez et al., 2018, Proceed. Mine Closure 2018, Leipzig, pp. 636-647).

In summary, there are complex interactions between the aboveground and belowground subsystems of the forest ecosystem. Several examples of tree-microbiota-soil feedback processes have been studied in the Guadiamar Green Corridor. Metal uptake by trees is influenced by soil pH, which in turn can be modified by litter decomposition and root exudates. The composition and diversity of soil fungi are affected by tree species identity; on the other hand, mycorrhizal fungal communities influence some tree processes, like leaf P concentration, and Zn transfer from soil to root. Trees influence on soil enzyme activities, which in turn affect nutrient cycling and their uptake by trees.

A pdf copy of the presentation slides can be consulted in Digital CSIC.

The assessment and evaluation of ecosystem services is a valuable tool to support and justify sustainble soil management.

Researchers of IRNAS, CSIC have contributed to the development of a methodology to quantify changes in ecosystem services induced by soil management measures, as part of the European RECARE consortium.

A comparative analysis of the results for 26 measures applied to remediate degraded soils, in 16 case studies across Europe, has been carried out. In particular, IRNAS´s researchers have evaluated the results of amendments (biosolid compost) and tree planting (wild olive) in contaminated and remediated soils of the Guadiamar Green Corridor.

The new methodology was applied to evaluate the impacts of each 26 measures on different ecosystem services. The most relevant 15 ecosystem services were selected, grouped in provisioning, regulation and cultural services. In general, the applied soil remediation measures produced positive changes in ecosystem services. Within the regulation services, “mediation of flows” (protection from erosion) and “mediation of waste, toxics and other nuisances” (stabilization of contaminants) showed the most important positive impacts.

The methodology also detected synergies and trade-offs among ecosystem services. This holistic approach may be the base for a valuation of the benefits from each ecosystem service and the integrated management of the evaluated land.

The results have been published in the December issue of the open access journal Sustainability:

Gudrun Schwilch, Tatenda Lemann, Örjan Berglund, Carlo Camarotto, Artemi Cerdà, Ioannis N. Daliakopoulos, Silvia Kohnová, Dominika Krzeminska, Teodoro Marañón, René Rietra, Grzegorz Siebielec, Johann Thorsson, Mark Tibbett, Sandra Valente, Hedwig van Delden, Jan van den Akker, Simone Verzandvoort, Nicoleta Olimpia Vrînceanu, Christos Zoumides, Rudi Hessel (2018), Assessing impacts of soil management measures on Ecosystem Services. Sustainability, 10 (12), 4416, doi:10.3390/su10124416.