Ecology

Desperately Seeking Sustenance

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Science  17 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5938, pp. 246
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_246a
CREDIT: ONIPCHENKO ET AL., ECOL. LETT. 12, 758 (2009)

Land plants have evolved a variety of specialized adaptations to gather nutrients from unlikely substrates, such as Amazonian trees whose roots grow upward on the bark of neighboring trees. The latest discovery—the snow roots of an alpine plant—comes from 2800 m in the Caucasus Mountains. Onipchenko et al. found that the herbaceous plant Corydalis conorhiza (a member of the poppy family) produces extensive networks of roots that grow upward and laterally into the snowpack that carpets the high slopes until the July thaw. Isotope experiments showed that these roots, which are anatomically distinct from the normal roots that grow downward into the soil, take up nitrogen directly from the snow-pack, thus exploiting a resource that would otherwise disappear down the mountainside during the brief summer.

Ecol. Lett. 12, 758 (2009).

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