Evolution at its finest: Plant roots in snow

Ecologists have discovered yet another astonishing way that plants defy all manner of physical obstacles to get what they need. Researchers have discovered alpine plant roots that grow upwards, against gravity, and out of the soil…into the snow.

A group of researchers centered at VU University in Amsterdam discovered the plant roots high in the mountains of southern Russia. The plant, Corydalis conorhiza, is in what’s sometimes referred to as the fumewort family, and has relatives around the globe. This particular species, however, has a tough time finding the nutrients it needs because of a thick ice layer that covers the ground well into the summer, preventing nutrients from leaching into the soil from aboveground organic matter.

ResearchBlogging.orgPublishing online last week in the journal Ecology Letters, the scientists say that C. conorhiza has evolved specialized roots that grow up through the soil, penetrate the ice layer and branch out in to the snow layer above. The roots then were thought to take up essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, directly from the snow.  To confirm their hypothesis, the researchers added an isotope of nitrogen to the snow surrounding the plants; sure enough, days later, they discovered high signatures of that nitrogen isotope in C. conorhiza, but not in other nearby plant species. Said corresponding author Hans Cornelissen in a statement:

“These roots help the plant to feed on nutrients in snow before the plant shoots appear above the surface in the growing season. This gives the plant an advance on other plant species, which can only take up nutrients through roots in the soil during the very short growing season.”

Read more in the New Scientist article.

Author: Christine Buckley

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