, Volume 39, Issue 7, pp 826-839,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 27 Jul 2013

The Impact of Beneficial Plant-Associated Microbes on Plant Phenotypic Plasticity


Plants show phenotypic plasticity in response to changing or extreme abiotic environments; but over millions of years they also have co-evolved to respond to the presence of soil microbes. Studies on phenotypic plasticity in plants have focused mainly on the effects of the changing environments on plants’ growth and survival. Evidence is now accumulating that the presence of microbes can alter plant phenotypic plasticity in a broad range of traits in response to a changing environment. In this review, we discuss the effects of microbes on plant phenotypic plasticity in response to changing environmental conditions, and how this may affect plant fitness. By using a range of specific plant-microbe interactions as examples, we demonstrate that one way that microbes can alleviate the effect of environmental stress on plants and thus increase plant fitness is to remove the stress, e.g., nutrient limitation, directly. Furthermore, microbes indirectly affect plant phenotypic plasticity and fitness through modulation of plant development and defense responses. In doing so, microbes affect fitness by both increasing or decreasing the degree of phenotypic plasticity, depending on the phenotype and the environmental stress studied, with no clear difference between the effect of prokaryotic and eukaryotic microbes in general. Additionally, plants have the ability to modulate microbial behaviors, suggesting that they manipulate bacteria, enhancing interactions that help them cope with stressful environments. Future challenges remain in the identification of the many microbial signals that modulate phenotypic plasticity, the characterization of plant genes, e.g. receptors, that mediate the microbial effects on plasticity, and the elucidation of the molecular mechanisms that link phenotypic plasticity with fitness. The characterization of plant and microbial mutants defective in signal synthesis or perception, together with carefully designed glasshouse or field experiments that test various environmental stresses will be necessary to understand the link between molecular mechanisms controlling plastic phenotypes with the resulting effects on plant fitness.

Chooi-Hua Goh and Debora F. Veliz Vallejos contributed equally to this work.