Welcome to the Maherali Lab!

Welcome to the Maherali Lab. We study the evolution of plant physiology and its mechanistic links to the ecological functioning of populations, communities and ecosystems.

A classic problem in biology is explaining why some areas of ‘phenotypic space’ are occupied, whereas others are empty. In other words, why have organisms evolved certain forms and functions and not others? Another major challenge is explaining the processes that shape the assembly of ecological communities. We know that communities are not usually random collections of species, but identifying the causes that structure communities is still an area of considerable debate. My lab links these questions using a plant functional trait perspective. We study how and why plant functional traits evolve, and how these traits influence the outcome of ecological interactions that are known to shape community assembly, such as competition and mutualism. To this work, we use several approaches, including comparative analyses among populations and species, observations of natural selection in the wild, and experimental studies that manipulate the identity of selective agents experienced by populations. We explore how traits influence community assembly and ecosystem function by carrying out experimental studies in controlled environments and in the field.

Within these broad general themes, our research focuses on two distinct areas:

First, we aim to understand the evolutionary causes of physiological variation in plants, particularly with respect to the ecophysiology of photosynthesis and water acquisition. By converting light into chemical energy, photosynthesis not only influences plant growth, but also sustains all other trophic levels. Our overall aim is to understand the the role of photosynthesis in plant adaptation to environmental resource variation, particularly limitations imposed by water stress. This work includes studies of natural selection on physiological traits as well as studies that link genome size and plant physiology.

Our second major goal is to understand the evolution and maintenance of the nutritional symbiosis between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. This interaction is widespread, taking place in up to 90% of all plant species on Earth. We study how mycorrhizal fungi influence the evolution of plant structure and function, and also seek to understand why the magnitude of the mutualistic benefit plants obtain from their fungal symbionts is so variable in the plant kingdom. Much of our ecological research is aimed at understanding how variation in mutualistic benefit among plant species influences diversity and productivity in plant communities.

To learn more about the research we do, click on the RESEARCH tab above for a description of specific research projects, or have a look at our PUBLICATIONS page.

There are openings for both graduate and undergraduate researchers in my lab. If you’re interested in working with us, see the information posted on the PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS and OPPORTUNITIES pages. Inquiries can be emailed to me at: maherali@uoguelph.ca