Plant and Soil

, Volume 341, Issue 1–2, pp 209–219 | Cite as

Dual benefit from a belowground symbiosis: nitrogen fixing rhizobia promote growth and defense against a specialist herbivore in a cyanogenic plant

  • Sylvia Thamer
  • Martin Schädler
  • Dries Bonte
  • Daniel J. BallhornEmail author
Regular Article


Legume-associated nitrogen-fixing bacteria play a key role for plant performance and productivity in natural and agricultural ecosystems. Although this plant-microbe mutualism has been known for decades, studies on effects of rhizobia colonisation on legume-herbivore interactions are scarce. We hypothesized that additional nitrogen provided by rhizobia may increase plant resistance by nitrogen-based defense mechanisms. We studied this below-aboveground interaction using a system consisting of lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus L.), rhizobia, and the Mexican bean beetle (Epilachna varivestis Muls.) as an insect herbivore. We showed that the rhizobial symbiosis not only promotes plant growth but also improves plant defense and resistance against herbivores. Results of our study lead to the suggestion that nitrogen provided by rhizobia is allocated to the production of nitrogen-containing cyanogenic defense compounds, and thereby crucially determines the outcome of plant-herbivore interactions. Our study supports the view that the fitness benefit of root symbioses includes defence mechanisms and thus extends beyond the promotion of plant growth. Since the associations between legumes and nitrogen-fixing rhizobia are ubiquitous in terrestrial ecosystems, improved knowledge on rhizobia-mediated effects on plant traits―and the resulting effects on higher trophic levels―is important for better understanding of the role of these microbes for ecosystem functioning.


Above-belowground interactions Cyanogenesis Ecosystem functions Legumes Nitrogen fixation Symbiosis 



cyanogenic potential; amount of cyanogenic precursors in a given plant tissue


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We acknowledge funding through the University of Duisburg-Essen and the German Science Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft; DFG, grant Ba 3966/1-1). We further would like to thank Manfred Jensen for fruitful discussions and Sascha Eilmus for cultivation of bacteria. We especially thank Prof. Peter Bayer for his continuous support.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sylvia Thamer
    • 1
  • Martin Schädler
    • 2
  • Dries Bonte
    • 3
  • Daniel J. Ballhorn
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of General Botany/Plant EcologyUniversity of Duisburg-EssenEssenGermany
  2. 2.Department Community EcologyHelmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research - UFZHalleGermany
  3. 3.Ghent University, Terrestrial Ecology UnitGhentBelgium
  4. 4.Department of Plant BiologyUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA

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