Soil microbial diversity and soil functioning affect competition among grasses in experimental microcosms
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- Bonkowski, M. & Roy, J. Oecologia (2005) 143: 232. doi:10.1007/s00442-004-1790-1
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A gradient of microbial diversity in soil was established by inoculating pasteurized soil with microbial populations of different complexity, which were obtained by a combination of soil fumigation and filtering techniques. Four different soil diversity treatments were planted with six different grass species either in monoculture or in polyculture to test how changes of general microbial functions, such as catabolic diversity and nutrient recycling efficiency would affect the performance of the plant communities. Relatively harsh soil treatments were necessary to elicit visible effects on major soil processes such as decomposition and nitrogen cycling due to the high redundancy and resilience of soil microbial communities. The strongest effects of soil diversity manipulations on plant growth occurred in polycultures where interspecific competition between plants was high. In polycultures, soil diversity reduction led to a gradual, linear decline in biomass production of one subordinate grass species (Bromus hordeaceus), which was compensated by increased growth of two intermediate competitors (Aegilops geniculata, B. madritensis). This negative covariance in growth of competing grass species smoothed the effects of soil diversity manipulations at the plant community level. As a result, total shoot biomass production remained constant. Apparently the effects of soil diversity manipulations were buffered because functional redundancy at both, the microbial and the plant community level complemented each other. The results further suggests that small trade-offs in plant fitness due to general functional shifts at the microbial level can be significant for the outcome of competition in plant communities and thus diversity at much larger scales.