Studying global change through investigation of the plastic responses of xylem anatomy in tree rings


Author for correspondence:
Patrick Fonti
Tel: +41 44 739 22 85


Variability in xylem anatomy is of interest to plant scientists because of the role water transport plays in plant performance and survival. Insights into plant adjustments to changing environmental conditions have mainly been obtained through structural and functional comparative studies between taxa or within taxa on contrasting sites or along environmental gradients. Yet, a gap exists regarding the study of hydraulic adjustments in response to environmental changes over the lifetimes of plants. In trees, dated tree-ring series are often exploited to reconstruct dynamics in ecological conditions, and recent work in which wood-anatomical variables have been used in dendrochronology has produced promising results. Environmental signals identified in water-conducting cells carry novel information reflecting changes in regional conditions and are mostly related to short, sub-annual intervals. Although the idea of investigating environmental signals through wood anatomical time series goes back to the 1960s, it is only recently that low-cost computerized image-analysis systems have enabled increased scientific output in this field. We believe that the study of tree-ring anatomy is emerging as a promising approach in tree biology and climate change research, particularly if complemented by physiological and ecological studies. This contribution presents the rationale, the potential, and the methodological challenges of this innovative approach.