Selected Recent Publications


Cannon CH, Lerdau M. Conservation should not make ’perfect’ an enemy of ’good’. Trends in plant science. 2023;28(9):971–972. doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2023.06.010
Yang X, Li R, Jablonski A, Stovall A, Kim J, Yi K, Ma Y, Beverly D, Phillips R, Novick K, et al. Leaf angle as a leaf and canopy trait: Rejuvenating its role in ecology with new technology. Ecology letters. 2023;26(6):1005–1020. doi:10.1111/ele.14215

Life on Earth depends on the conversion of solar energy to chemical energy by plants through photosynthesis. A fundamental challenge in optimizing photosynthesis is to adjust leaf angles to efficiently use the intercepted sunlight under the constraints of heat stress, water loss and competition. Despite the importance of leaf angle, until recently, we have lacked data and frameworks to describe and predict leaf angle dynamics and their impacts on leaves to the globe. We review the role of leaf angle in studies of ecophysiology, ecosystem ecology and earth system science, and highlight the essential yet understudied role of leaf angle as an ecological strategy to regulate plant carbon-water-energy nexus and to bridge leaf, canopy and earth system processes. Using two models, we show that leaf angle variations have significant impacts on not only canopy-scale photosynthesis, energy balance and water use efficiency but also light competition within the forest canopy. New techniques to measure leaf angles are emerging, opening opportunities to understand the rarely-measured intraspecific, interspecific, seasonal and interannual variations of leaf angles and their implications to plant biology and earth system science. We conclude by proposing three directions for future research.

Lerdau MT, Monson RK, Ehleringer JR. The carbon balance of plants: economics, optimization, and trait spectra in a historical perspective. Oecologia. 2023. doi:10.1007/s00442-023-05458-y

Over fifty years have passed since the publication of Harold Mooney's formative paper, "The Carbon Balance of Plants" on pages 315-346 of Volume 3 (1972) of Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Arguably, the conceptual framework presented in that paper, and the work by Mooney and his students leading up to the paper, provided the foundational principles from which core disciplines emerged in plant economic theory, functional trait theory and, more generally, plant physiological ecology. Here, we revisit the primary impacts of those early discoveries to understand how researchers constructed major concepts in our understanding of plant adaptations, and where those concepts are likely to take us in the near future. The discipline of functional trait ecology, which is rooted in the principles of evolutionary and economic optimization, has captured the imagination of the plant physiological ecology research community, though its emphasis has shifted toward predicting species distributions and ecological roles across resource gradients. In the face of 'big-data' research pursuits that are revealing trait expression patterns at the cellular level and mass and energy exchange patterns at the planetary scale, an opportunity exists to reconnect the principles of plant carbon balance and evolutionary optimization with trait origins at the genetic and cellular scales and trait impacts at the global scale.


Inouye BD, Brosi BJ, Le Sage EH, Lerdau MT. Trade-offs Among Resilience, Robustness, Stability, and Performance and How We Might Study Them. Integrative and comparative biology. 2022;61(6):2180–2189. doi:10.1093/icb/icab178

Biological systems are likely to be constrained by trade-offs among robustness, resilience, and performance. A better understanding of these trade-offs is important for basic biology, as well as applications where biological systems can be designed for different goals. We focus on redundancy and plasticity as mechanisms governing some types of trade-offs, but mention others as well. Whether trade-offs are due to resource constraints or "design" constraints (i.e., structure of nodes and links within a network) will also affect the types of trade-offs that are important. Identifying common themes across scales of biological organization will require that researchers use similar approaches to quantifying robustness, resilience, and performance, using units that can be compared across systems.

Monson RK, Trowbridge AM, Lindroth RL, Lerdau MT. Coordinated resource allocation to plant growth-defense tradeoffs. The New phytologist. 2022;233(3):1051–1066. doi:10.1111/nph.17773

Plant resource allocation patterns often reveal tradeoffs that favor growth (G) over defense (D), or vice versa. Ecologists most often explain G-D tradeoffs through principles of economic optimality, in which negative trait correlations are attributed to the reconciliation of fitness costs. Recently, researchers in molecular biology have developed 'big data' resources including multi-omic (e.g. transcriptomic, proteomic and metabolomic) studies that describe the cellular processes controlling gene expression in model species. In this synthesis, we bridge ecological theory with discoveries in multi-omics biology to better understand how selection has shaped the mechanisms of G-D tradeoffs. Multi-omic studies reveal strategically coordinated patterns in resource allocation that are enabled by phytohormone crosstalk and transcriptional signal cascades. Coordinated resource allocation justifies the framework of optimality theory, while providing mechanistic insight into the feedbacks and control hubs that calibrate G-D tradeoff commitments. We use the existing literature to describe the coordinated resource allocation hypothesis (CoRAH) that accounts for balanced cellular controls during the expression of G-D tradeoffs, while sustaining stored resource pools to buffer the impacts of future stresses. The integrative mechanisms of the CoRAH unify the supply- and demand-side perspectives of previous G-D tradeoff theories.