For her senior project, Lucy Christiana ’19 built a computer simulation of plant community dynamics. Lucy studied how plants would grow if they experience a phenomenon called “plant-soil negative feedback”. Despite a scary name, the idea of this effect is rather simple: imagine that every growing plant is attacked by some “bad stuff” living in the soil, such as pathogenic fungi that try to weaken or kill the plant. As a plant is growing , these fungal pathogens will multiply in the soil around it, making this patch of soil kind of hostile to this plant species. Any seed from this species, for example, will have a hard time surviving in this particular patch of soil, just because it is so rich with “bad fungi”. A different plant species, however, will have no problem living there, as it will be immune to pathogens (each plant species comes with its own list of enemies, so pathogens of one species don’t necessarily harm the other).
As you can imagine, this can really change how plants grow, and it would probably improve biodiversity: even if one plant species is a strong competitor, it will soon be weakened by local pathogens, allowing other species to grow in its place. Lucy was interested in how these negative feedbacks shape the emerging plant community, and she used over 30 years of historical vegetation data from a particular long-term field experiment in Lawrence, Kansas. Lucy built a cellular automata model for one of the species described in this experiment (Ambrosia artemisiifolia, aka common ragweed), and compared predictions of her model to real data. This study is a step towards a more integrated analysis of spatiotemporal patterns of plant community assembly dynamics, and it can help us to understand how plants interact with each other, and how these interactions shape the landscapes that surround us.