Root traits as drivers of plant and ecosystem functioning: current understanding, pitfalls and future research needs

Grégoire T. Freschet*, 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, Iván 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

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    261 Citations (Scopus)


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

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1123-1158
    Number of pages36
    JournalNew Phytologist
    Issue number3
    Early online date15 Jan 2021
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021


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


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