The main focus of my research is on biotic interactions between plants. I am particularly interested in the role of root exudates and soil microbes in mediating plant-plant interactions and in establishing how the nature of plant responses to neighbours is affected by the evolutionary history of the species involved in the interaction. My research has included studies of individual plants from single species; multiple plant species, with the aim of explaining interspecific variation in various traits; and entire plant communities. I‘m currently working towards incorporating an ecosystem perspective in my research.
Here are some themes I am currently interested in:
Local adaptation, plant co-existence and belowground interactions
My current research focuses on belowground plant interactions and particularly the role of evolutionary history and the mechanisms mediating interactions. Studies on the ability of plant roots to detect and distinguish between neighbours of different identities have revealed very complex and species-specific interactions. While some root responses to neighbours may be mediated by nutrients, the results of several studies have indicated the involvement of non-nutritional cues. The interactions are likely to be mediated by root exudates, which may affect plant growth and performance either directly or by altering soil properties and interactions with microbial communities. Also, very little is known about the role of local adaptation in determining the nature and specificity of root interactions. I use artificial grassland communities and manipulate belowground processes to determine the role of local adaptation, root exudates and soil microbes in plant community structuring and ecosystem functioning.
Kin recognition: patterns, mechanisms and consequences
Recent studies found that plants are able to detect the genetic identity of their neighbours. Some species proliferate roots when grown next to unrelated individuals but apparently avoid direct competition with kin by reducing root growth. Kin recognition ability in plants may have important implications for the functioning of natural ecosystems and it also opens up new possibilities in crop breeding. However, in-depth knowledge is required to estimate the importance of this phenomenon in natural systems and to realise its potential in agricultural science. In my work, I am looking at the commonness of this phenomenon in plant kingdom, the role of root exudates as mediators in kin recognition and the consequences of recognition for plant interactions with other ecosystem components.
Evolutionary theory and species traits
An increasing number of studies use trait-based approach to predict plant community and ecosystem functioning. However, there is surprisingly little understanding of how measurable plant traits, particularly those related to belowground processes, translate into plant function and what are the evolutionary mechanisms shaping these traits. By looking at plants from the perspective of evolutionary game theory, I try to identify belowground traits that enable suppression or avoidance of competitors reminiscent of selfish or cooperative behaviour, respectively, and how these traits are shaped by species life history.
Phenotypic plasticity is an ability of organisms to modify their phenotype in response to environmental cues. This property is fundamentally important for the survival of life in variable or rapidly changing environments. I have carried out a number of projects exploring morphological plasticity of plants to different light cues, plant growth facilitation by shading and the role of species habitat requirements and community spatial patterns in shaping plasticity.