Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 24, Issue 5, pp 1045–1059 | Cite as

Soils as agents of selection: feedbacks between plants and soils alter seedling survival and performance

  • Clara C. Pregitzer
  • Joseph K. Bailey
  • Stephen C. Hart
  • Jennifer A. Schweitzer
Original Paper


Soils are one of the first selective environments a seed experiences and yet little is known about the evolutionary consequences of plant-soil feedbacks. We have previously found that plant phytochemical traits in a model system, Populus spp., influence rates of leaf litter decay, soil microbial communities and rates of soil net nitrogen mineralization. Utilizing this natural variation in plant-soil linkages we examined two related hypotheses: (1) Populus angustifolia seedlings are locally adapted to their native soils; and (2) Soils act as agents of selection, differentially affecting seedling survival and the heritability of plant traits. We conducted a greenhouse experiment by planting seedlings from 20 randomly collected P. angustifolia genetic families in soils conditioned by various Populus species and measured subsequent survival and performance. Even though P. angustifolia soils are less fertile overall, P. angustifolia seedlings grown in these soils were twice as likely to survive, grew 24% taller, had 27% more leaves, and 29% greater above-ground biomass than P. angustifolia seedlings grown in non-native P. fremontii or hybrid soils. Increased survival resulted in higher trait variation among seedlings in native soils compared to seedlings grown in non-native soils. Soil microbial biomass varied significantly across soil environments which could explain more of the variation in seedling performance than soil texture, pH, or nutrient availability, suggesting strong microbial interactions and feedbacks between plants, soils, and associated microorganisms. Overall, these data suggest that a “home-field advantage” or a positive plant soil feedback helps maintain genetic variance in P. angustifolia seedlings.


Genetic variation Local adaptation Narrowsense heritability Plant-soil feedback Populus Selection Soil microbial communities 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Clara C. Pregitzer
    • 1
  • Joseph K. Bailey
    • 1
    • 3
  • Stephen C. Hart
    • 2
  • Jennifer A. Schweitzer
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Ecology & Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA
  2. 2.School of Natural Sciences and Sierra Nevada Research InstituteUniversity of CaliforniaMercedUSA
  3. 3.School of Plant Science and CRC for ForestryUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia

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