Image above was taken at the Jena Biodiversity Experiment in central Germany (Sasha Wright)
My name is Sasha Wright and I’m excited to be joining the PLOS community as an editor of the PLOS ecology community blog! I’m a plant biologist and quantitative ecologist. I work mostly on biodiversity-ecosystem function research: how plant diversity increases ecosystem functions and services. I’m particularly interested in positive interactions between neighboring plants and how they may be more important in severe environments and under different climate change scenarios.
The mechanism I’ve explored most deeply is something like an air conditioning effect that plants can provide for their neighbors. Plants are a unique life form in that they photosynthesize: they open small pores – stomata – on their leaf surface and absorb CO2 through these pores. interestingly, in some type of accident of evolution and physics, these pores are also the right size for water to escape. So in many cases (though not all) as long as a plant is photosynthesizing it is also losing water. If the environment becomes too dry, the plant may reach a threshold and close its stomata: this reduces water loss but also halts growth.
In any given environment, different plants will have evolved different strategies for dealing with this paradox. Some plants will start closing their stomata and halting growth earlier than others.
Now imagine this: if your neighbor has a slightly more lenient threshold for stomatal closure, that plant has the capacity to continue photosynthesizing and losing water beyond your own.
This process of losing water next to you will actually modify the environment in which you live. As your neighboring plant loses water it will both humidify and cool the air around you.
Both of these changes will occur through the process of evaporative cooling: similar to the human process of sweating. My research has shown that this slight cooling and humidifying effect may reduce water stress for some plants and result in increased survival and growth of young plants.
My general interests are quite varied. Look for coverage of topics ranging from group science, to biodiversity monitoring from space, to pollination ecology. Please reach out and let me know if you are interested in collaborating on a piece for the blog: firstname.lastname@example.org