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End the duopoly

When do plants help or hinder each other?

Credit: CC0 Public Domain When plants grow close together, each individual plant has less chance of doing well—at least, that was the accepted wisdom in environmental research. Now Dr. Ruichang Zhang and Professor Katja Tielbörger from the Institute of Evolution and Ecology at the University of Tübingen are challenging that principle. Their investigation of the combined effects of environmental stress and competition on plants has led them to develop a new theoretical model suggesting that plants can ‘help’ each other out. The researchers were able to confirm their model predictions in detail in an experiment with real plants. Their study has been published in the latest Nature Communications.

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Competition leads to fewer resources being available for each individual organism. "If the crowding becomes too much, this can even lead to the death of individual plants ," says Katja Tielbörger. Yet there are many empirical studies that show that plants can also facilitate each other. Tielbörger says this is often the case when plants grow under stressful conditions—for instance, when the soil is saline or the temperatures are high. "When it’s very hot, for example, large plants can provide shade, which in turn can create better conditions for smaller plants that […]

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