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Competing neighbors: light perception and root function


Plant responses to competition have often been described as passive consequences of reduced resource availability. However, plants have mechanisms to forage for favorable conditions and anticipate competition scenarios. Despite the progresses made in understanding the role of light signaling in modulating plant–plant interactions, little is known about how plants use and integrate information gathered by their photoreceptors aboveground to regulate performance belowground. Given that the phytochrome family of photoreceptors plays a key role in the acquisition of information about the proximity of neighbors and canopy cover, it is tempting to speculate that changes in the red:far-red (R:FR) ratio perceived by aboveground plant parts have important implications shaping plant behavior belowground. Exploring data from published experiments, we assess the neglected role of light signaling in the control of root function. The available evidence indicates that plant exposure to low R:FR ratios affects root growth and morphology, root exudate profiles, and interactions with beneficial soil microorganisms. Although dependent on species identity, signals perceived aboveground are likely to affect root-to-root interactions. Root systems could also be guided to deploy new growth predominantly in open areas by light signals perceived by the shoots. Studying interactions between above- and belowground plant–plant signaling is expected to improve our understanding of the mechanisms of plant competition.

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This article is dedicated to the memory of Hernán E. Boccalandro with whom P. E. G. started to explore some of the ideas discussed here. P. E. G. thanks Prof. Kari Saikkonen for the opportunity to carry out this project during his post-doctoral stay at MTT Agrifood Research Finland. The stay of P. E. G. at Wageningen University was supported by a visiting scientist grant of the graduate school of Production Ecology and Resource Conservation of Wageningen University and an Academy of Finland grant 137909 (MTT: 21030085).

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Correspondence to Pedro E. Gundel.

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Communicated by Fernando Valladares.

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Gundel, P.E., Pierik, R., Mommer, L. et al. Competing neighbors: light perception and root function. Oecologia 176, 1–10 (2014).

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  • Plant competition
  • Root growth
  • Signal transduction
  • Phytochrome
  • Neighbor perception