Quantifying soil microbial effects on plant species coexistence: a conceptual synthesis

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Gaurav Kandlikar


Soil microorganisms play a critical role in shaping the biodiversity dynamics of plant communities. These microbial effects can arise through direct mediation of plant fitness by pathogens and mutualists, and over the past two decades, numerous studies have shined a spotlight on the role of dynamic feedbacks between plants and soil microorganisms as key determinants of plant species coexistence. Such feedbacks occur when plants modify the composition of the soil community, which in turn affects plant performance. Stimulated by a theoretical model developed in the 1990s, a bulk of the empirical evidence for microbial controls over plant coexistence comes from experiments that quantify plant growth in soil communities that were previously conditioned by conspecific or heterospecific plants. These studies have revealed that soil microbes can generate strong negative to positive frequency-dependent dynamics among plants.

Even as soil microbes have become recognized as a key player in determining plant coexistence outcomes, the past five years have seen a renewed interest in expanding the conceptual foundations of this field. New results include re-interpretations of key metrics from classic two-species models, extensions of plant-soil feedback theory to multi-species communities, and frameworks to integrate plant-soil feedbacks with processes like intra- and inter-specific competition. Here, I review the implications of theoretical developments for interpreting existing empirical results, and highlight proposed analyses and designs for future experiments that can enable a more complete understanding of microbial regulation of plant community dynamics.




Ecology and Evolutionary Biology


plant-soil feedback, theory-data integration, multispecies coexistence, Soil microbiome, mutualists, pathogens


Published: 2024-01-25 03:56

Last Updated: 2024-02-29 19:41

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Data and Code Availability Statement:
Code for rendering all figures and manuscript documents is available at https://gitlab.com/gklab/ajb-synthesis-public for the review process and will be publicly archived upon acceptance.