In many plant communities, the most important interactions occur below ground. It is here that up to 80% of the plant mass is located, as roots, and these roots play a significant role in determining the composition and diversity of species in plant communities. Understanding belowground community structure and the mechanisms of root competition has been hampered, to date, by the inability to identify roots by species. This research will develop DNA markers to identify species and quantify their abundance in mixed root samples. These markers will be validated in a set of experiments addressing fundamental questions about how root competition, particularly for spatially patchy resources, affects individual plant foraging behavior and the diversity and relative abundance of species in mixtures.
The molecular methods developed will provide essential tools for other research that requires an understanding of belowground structure in plant communities. This work will strengthen interdisciplinary partnerships by bringing together faculty specializing in ecology and genomics. Also, four students, three undergraduates and one graduate student, will conduct original research.