A worldview of root traits: the influence of ancestry, growth form, climate and mycorrhizal association on the functional trait variation of fine-root tissues in seed plants

New Phytol. 2017 Sep;215(4):1562-1573. doi: 10.1111/nph.14571. Epub 2017 Apr 25.


Fine-root traits play key roles in ecosystem processes, but the drivers of fine-root trait diversity remain poorly understood. The plant economic spectrum (PES) hypothesis predicts that leaf and root traits evolved in coordination. Mycorrhizal association type, plant growth form and climate may also affect root traits. However, the extent to which these controls are confounded with phylogenetic structuring remains unclear. Here we compiled information about root and leaf traits for > 600 species. Using phylogenetic relatedness, climatic ranges, growth form and mycorrhizal associations, we quantified the importance of these factors in the global distribution of fine-root traits. Phylogenetic structuring accounts for most of the variation for all traits excepting root tissue density, with root diameter and nitrogen concentration showing the strongest phylogenetic signal and specific root length showing intermediate values. Climate was the second most important factor, whereas mycorrhizal type had little effect. Substantial trait coordination occurred between leaves and roots, but the strength varied between growth forms and clades. Our analyses provide evidence that the integration of roots and leaves in the PES requires better accounting of the variation in traits across phylogenetic clades. Inclusion of phylogenetic information provides a powerful framework for predictions of belowground functional traits at global scales.

Keywords: fine roots; mycorrhizas; plant economics spectrum; plant evolution; plant functional traits; root diameter; specific root length (SRL).

MeSH terms

  • Mycorrhizae / physiology*
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Phylogeny*
  • Plant Development*
  • Plant Leaves / physiology
  • Plants / microbiology*
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable*


  • Nitrogen