Biogeochemical cycling traces the pathways by which elements pass through both biotic and abiotic steps on their journeys between the earth and the atmosphere. Plants are a critical step in this process for many elements; however, traditional biogeochemistry views typically take a top down approach, treating plants as a ‘green box’ and failing to appreciate the rich texture provided by how different plant species control the rates and forms of elemental cycling.
In this Special Feature (“Whether in Life or Death: fresh perspectives on how plants affect biogeochemical cycling”), on both land and in the sea, we highlight a series of studies in which the researchers explore from the bottom up how plants influence biogeochemical cycles. Papers by Litchman et al. (2015) and Stepien (2015) focus on the diversity and functioning of phytoplankton and macrophytes in the oceans, including plant traits and specialized carbon-concentrating mechanisms. Templer et al. (2015) and Araujo and Austin (2015) examine how conifer canopies allow for direct resource uptake from the atmosphere and light attenuation altering photodegradation of litter on the ground. Zanne et al. (2015) continue to focus on plant controls on rates of tissue decay by microbes in wood, while Borer et al. (2015) manipulate foliar pest and pathogen communities in grasslands to determine shifts in leaf stoichiometry. Going belowground, both Moore et al. (2015) and Midgley, Brzostek, and Phillips (2015) look at the role of microbes and roots to determine soil and litter chemical dynamics. These 8 studies provide fresh perspective on the critical role of plants in creating the world we find around us and responding to the world we are creating for them.
It is an ongoing challenge in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), as in many disciplines, attracting and maintaining women throughout the educational process and into academia. We would like to highlight that the lead and/or senior author of all papers in this Special Feature is a woman, with stages ranging from early career graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to full professors. These are women pushing the boundaries of their discipline and making new contributions to our understanding of how plants influence biogeochemistry. We pause here to acknowledge their accomplishments in this Special Feature and in their contributions to their fields more generally. The best way to #changethenumbers is to celebrate good science.