About this Research Topic
In this Frontiers topic, we will explore how the functions and fates of plant silicon interact with other organisms and ecosystem processes. By bringing together cross-disciplinary studies across multiple scales, we aim to present a unique global picture of how plants use silicon to gain a competitive advantage and the implications for ecology, agriculture, and ecosystem services.
Silicon is a beneficial, if not essential, nutrient for plants. As the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust it has a global budget similar to that of carbon. Plants use silicon to defend against herbivores, for structural support and to alleviate environmental stresses. Much of our early understanding of plant silicon was derived from agricultural and archaeological research. Today, plant silicon research in plant physiology and ecology are growing fields. We suggest that there is much value in a reciprocal exchange of ideas and analytical approaches across all of these disciplines.
A key ecological aim is to understand the competitive and/or reproductive advantages that silicon uptake confers on plants. Recent research has identified the pathways by which plants acquire silicon from the soil and allocate it to leaves, with the identification of silicon transporters and the encoding genetic loci. Identification of some of the chemical, genetic and physiological mechanisms by which silicon contributes to abiotic stress alleviation was another major advance. Feedback between plant silicon and herbivores is also an emerging area. Vertebrate and invertebrate herbivory can induce silicon uptake in some plants, and conversely, silicon affects animal feeding and performance. Current research explores inter-specific interactions, including co-evolutionary relationships between plant silicon and animals, particularly morphological adaptations, behavioural responses and the potential for silicon to regulate mammal populations.
Contemporary studies have quantified silicon fluxes in some vegetation communities and nearby waterways, together with processes such as leaf decomposition. These studies provide significant progress towards quantifying the importance of silicon for plants and scaling up to better estimate a global silicon budget. However, plant reliance on silicon in natural systems, and silicon fluxes in the majority of soils and vegetation communities remain unquantified.
Silicon could help plants mitigate some effects of climate change through alleviation of biotic and abiotic stress. In addition, most plant silicon is ultimately dissolved in waterways and oceans, where following up-take by siliceous organisms such as diatoms forms an important carbon sink. Hence understanding the role of plant silicon across ecological, agricultural and biochemical disciplines is increasingly important in the context of global environmental change.
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