All plants have a limited amount of time to acquire sufficient resources (light, water, nutrients) to maximise their individual performance, which is to grow, survive and ultimately to reproduce. During their life span, individual performance may either be facilitated or hampered by biotic and abiotic factors, as all plants, on the level of individuals or communities, are constantly exposed to fluctuating environmental conditions. For example, individual light acquisition may be impeded by competing species, and soil nutrient limitation may limit growth rates. These fluctuations may originate from natural dynamics or may stem from anthropogenic activities. Human-induced changes in the global environment strongly affect plant performance, with the main drivers being changes in land‐use, in temperature and precipitation, carbon dioxide levels, nutrient availability and input of anthropogenic compounds, such as pesticides. Against this background, my research focuses on disentangling intrinsic differences among individuals of the same or different species from the effects of the abiotic or biotic environment. Understanding the responses of plants to the environment, their trait-trait relationships and ultimately their effects on ecosystem properties is crucial for understanding ecosystem processes per se and allows predictions of consequences of the changing environment we live in.
Plants are not fixed in their responses to their biotic or abiotic environment, but are able to respond more or less plastic to environmental fluctuations. The foundation of phenotypic plasticity is said to lie in the genome, but now there is evidence for heritable trait-variation through epigenetic mechanisms. As such, with my research I try to understand how plant plasticity is affected by environmental fluctuations within and across generations, as it is important not only for understanding basic principles of plant science, but also in the framework of adaptations to current and future environmental conditions.
My research includes topics like:
- Within-generational and transgenerational plasticity
This topic is embedded in one of the five grand challenges in organismal biology, which is the ‘generation and evolution of phenotypic diversity’ and focuses on (epi)genetic information transfer between plant generations. I study phenotypic plasticity in response to fluctuating environmental conditions to determine if plasticity within and across generations can explain patterns of plant performance.
- Effects of ‘contaminants of emerging concern’ (e.g. veterinary antibiotics) on plant performance
Veterinary antibiotics (VA) are used in livestock farming and may be taken up by plants and accumulate in plant tissue. However, their effects on plant growth and plant species interaction is still poorly understood. Similarly, the effects of VAs on plant-microbe interaction, which can be decisive for plant-nutrient uptake and performance, are still not adequately studied. So far, our previous studies showed effects of in vivo-antibiotic concentrations on plant performance and plant-insect interaction.
- Stoichiometric plant responses to environmental stress
Ecological stoichiometry is the study of the balance of energy and elements which influence organisms and ecosystems. This branch of functional plant ecology studies the effects of nutrient availabilities on species interactions, productivity rates or loss of species. Until now, my research focused on the plant nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and silicon. Whereas the first two are essential nutrients for plant growth, potassium is crucial in regulating the plant-water household and silicon plays a significant role in plant adaptations to various stressors.
I am interested in basic patterns of plant performance, but also in understanding species’ coexistence in communities. My first study was on the effects of an invasive species on the native plant community in Hawaiian rainforests, and ever since, invasive plant species are regularly part of my research. I have practical research experience in greenhouses, costal and tidal marshes, tropical rainforests and savanna ecosystems. For example, a project in tidal marshes identified embanked areas suitable for restoring natural vegetation, or a project on coastal dunes worked on the resilience and resistance of dune species after disturbance events.
I have always had a strong passion for plant ecology. I studied Biology at the University of Rostock, Germany, and the Universities of Hawai’i at Manoa and Hilo, USA. Following, I received my PhD from the University of Oldenburg, Germany, in 2010. The research was carried out in the Landscape Ecology Group on morphological and stoichiometric trait responses of saltmarsh plants in response to environmental gradients. In 2016/2017 I conducted a Research Fellowship at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Belgium, in the Department of Biology on the effects of nutrient gradients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) on plant performance. My previous positions include a position as Assistant Professor at the Landscape Ecology Group of the University of Oldenburg and as a researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). The latter is now continued by a position as Principal Investigator within a project on within-generational and transgenerational plant plasticity, in combination with a Professorship at the Department of Biology, Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Belgium.