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1.  Complementarity in root architecture for nutrient uptake in ancient maize/bean and maize/bean/squash polycultures 
Annals of Botany  2012;110(2):521-534.
Background and Aims
During their domestication, maize, bean and squash evolved in polycultures grown by small-scale farmers in the Americas. Polycultures often overyield on low-fertility soils, which are a primary production constraint in low-input agriculture. We hypothesized that root architectural differences among these crops causes niche complementarity and thereby greater nutrient acquisition than corresponding monocultures.
Methods
A functional–structural plant model, SimRoot, was used to simulate the first 40 d of growth of these crops in monoculture and polyculture and to determine the effects of root competition on nutrient uptake and biomass production of each plant on low-nitrogen, -phosphorus and -potassium soils.
Key Results
Squash, the earliest domesticated crop, was most sensitive to low soil fertility, while bean, the most recently domesticated crop, was least sensitive to low soil fertility. Nitrate uptake and biomass production were up to 7 % greater in the polycultures than in the monocultures, but only when root architecture was taken into account. Enhanced nitrogen capture in polycultures was independent of nitrogen fixation by bean. Root competition had negligible effects on phosphorus or potassium uptake or biomass production.
Conclusions
We conclude that spatial niche differentiation caused by differences in root architecture allows polycultures to overyield when plants are competing for mobile soil resources. However, direct competition for immobile resources might be negligible in agricultural systems. Interspecies root spacing may also be too large to allow maize to benefit from root exudates of bean or squash. Above-ground competition for light, however, may have strong feedbacks on root foraging for immobile nutrients, which may increase cereal growth more than it will decrease the growth of the other crops. We note that the order of domestication of crops correlates with increasing nutrient efficiency, rather than production potential.
doi:10.1093/aob/mcs082
PMCID: PMC3394648  PMID: 22523423
‘Three sisters’; polyculture; root architecture; SimRoot; functional–structural model; nutrient deficiency; maize; bean; squash; niche complementarity; root competition
2.  Theoretical evidence for the functional benefit of root cortical aerenchyma in soils with low phosphorus availability 
Annals of Botany  2010;107(5):829-841.
Background and Aims
The formation of root cortical aerenchyma (RCA) reduces root respiration and nutrient content by converting living tissue to air volume. It was hypothesized that RCA increases soil resource acquisition by reducing the metabolic and phosphorus cost of soil exploration.
Methods
To test the quantitative logic of the hypothesis, SimRoot, a functional–structural plant model with emphasis on root architecture and nutrient acquisition, was employed. Sensitivity analyses for the effects of RCA on the initial 40 d of growth of maize (Zea mays) and common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) were conducted in soils with varying degrees of phosphorus availability. With reference to future climates, the benefit of having RCA in high CO2 environments was simulated.
Key Results
The model shows that RCA may increase the growth of plants faced with suboptimal phosphorus availability up to 70 % for maize and 14 % for bean after 40 d of growth. Maximum increases were obtained at low phosphorus availability (3 µm). Remobilization of phosphorus from dying cells had a larger effect on plant growth than reduced root respiration. The benefit of both these functions was additive and increased over time. Larger benefits may be expected for mature plants. Sensitivity analysis for light-use efficiency showed that the benefit of having RCA is relatively stable, suggesting that elevated CO2 in future climates will not significantly effect the benefits of having RCA.
Conclusions
The results support the hypothesis that RCA is an adaptive trait for phosphorus acquisition by remobilizing phosphorus from the root cortex and reducing the metabolic costs of soil exploration. The benefit of having RCA in low-phosphorus soils is larger for maize than for bean, as maize is more sensitive to low phosphorus availability while it has a more ‘expensive’ root system. Genetic variation in RCA may be useful for breeding phosphorus-efficient crop cultivars, which is important for improving global food security.
doi:10.1093/aob/mcq199
PMCID: PMC3077978  PMID: 20971728
Zea mays; Phaseolus vulgaris; root cortical aerenchyma; phosphorus deficiency; SimRoot; functional structural modelling; carbon economy

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