Understanding deep roots and their functions in ecosystems: an advocacy for more unconventional research

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Abstract

Background Deep roots are a common trait among a wide range of plant species and biomes, and are pivotal to the very existence of ecosystem services such as pedogenesis, groundwater and streamflow regulation, soil carbon sequestration and moisture content in the lower troposphere. Notwithstanding the growing realization of the functional significance of deep roots across disciplines such as soil science, agronomy, hydrology, ecophysiology or climatology, research efforts allocated to the study of deep roots remain incommensurate with those devoted to shallow roots. This is due in part to the fact that, despite technological advances, observing and measuring deep roots remains challenging.

Scope Here, other reasons that explain why there are still so many fundamental unresolved questions related to deep roots are discussed. These include the fact that a number of hypotheses and models that are widely considered as verified and sufficiently robust are only partly supported by data. Evidence has accumulated that deep rooting could be a more widespread and important trait among plants than usually considered based on the share of biomass that it represents. Examples that indicate that plant roots have different structures and play different roles with respect to major biochemical cycles depending on their position within the soil profile are also examined and discussed.

Conclusions Current knowledge gaps are identified and new lines of research for improving our understanding of the processes that drive deep root growth and functioning are proposed. This ultimately leads to a reflection on an alternative paradigm that could be used in the future as a unifying framework to describe and analyse deep rooting. Despite the many hurdles that pave the way to a practical understanding of deep rooting functions, it is anticipated that, in the relatively near future, increased knowledge about the deep rooting traits of a variety of plants and crops will have direct and tangible influence on how we manage natural and cultivated ecosystems.

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