Belowground carbon trade among tall trees in a temperate forest

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Science  15 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6283, pp. 342-344
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad6188

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Carbon trading between adult trees

Competition between individual plants for resources is well known, but sharing of resources may also occur. Klein et al. observed tree-to-tree carbon shuttling between roots of tall trees in a mixed temperate forest in Switzerland (see the Perspective by van der Heijden). By applying stable carbon isotope labeling to individual tree canopies, they show that up to 40% of the carbon in the fine roots of one individual may be derived from photosynthetic products of a neighbor. Carbon transfer of this kind, mediated by plant-associated fungi, or mycorrhizae, in the soil, has been reported on a smaller scale in seedlings, but not before in trees.

Science, this issue p. 342; see also p. 290


Forest trees compete for light and soil resources, but photoassimilates, once produced in the foliage, are not considered to be exchanged between individuals. Applying stable carbon isotope labeling at the canopy scale, we show that carbon assimilated by 40-meter-tall spruce is traded over to neighboring beech, larch, and pine via overlapping root spheres. Isotope mixing signals indicate that the interspecific, bidirectional transfer, assisted by common ectomycorrhiza networks, accounted for 40% of the fine root carbon (about 280 kilograms per hectare per year tree-to-tree transfer). Although competition for resources is commonly considered as the dominant tree-to-tree interaction in forests, trees may interact in more complex ways, including substantial carbon exchange.

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