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Root proliferation in response to neighbouring roots in wheat (Triticum aestivum)

Zhu, Yong-He, Weiner, Jacob, Li, Feng-Min
Basic and applied ecology 2019 v.39 pp. 10-14
Triticum aestivum, aboveground biomass, crops, cultivars, landraces, nylon, plant breeding, roots, soil, spring wheat
It has been hypothesized that plants compete actively by allocating more resources to competitive organs and activities in response to neighbours, and this can reduce population performance, such as yield in crops. Root proliferation and reduced aboveground growth in response to the presence of roots of a neighbouring plant in experiments with vs. without root dividers between pairs of plants has been reported in several studies, but this result has been criticized as a possible artefact resulting from differences in soil volume available to roots in the two treatments. To address this possible confounding effect, we conducted a pot experiment with a traditional landrace and a modern cultivar of wheat (Triticum aestivum). Pairs of spring wheat plants were grown in pots with two types of root dividers (a) film, which completely divides the soil into two volumes, and (b) fine nylon net, through which roots cannot grow but chemical cues can move. We hypothesized that the root proliferation in response to root interactions would reduce aboveground growth. Wheat plants produced significantly more belowground and less aboveground biomass when interacting through the net dividers than when roots were completely separated. This effect was smaller, but still significant, in the modern cultivar. Our results confirm neighbour-induced root proliferation resulting in a so-called “tragedy of the commons” in an important crop species. The results also suggest that this response has decreased over the course of crop breeding, due to inadvertent “group selection”, and that there is further potential to increase yields by reducing or eliminating this response.