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Soil microbial communities alter leaf chemistry and influence allelopathic potential among coexisting plant species

Abstract

While both plant–soil feedbacks and allelochemical interactions are key drivers of plant community dynamics, the potential for these two drivers to interact with each other remains largely unexplored. If soil microbes influence allelochemical production, this would represent a novel dimension of heterogeneity in plant–soil feedbacks. To explore the linkage between soil microbial communities and plant chemistry, we experimentally generated soil microbial communities and evaluated their impact on leaf chemical composition and allelopathic potential. Four native perennial old-field species (two each of Aster and Solidago) were grown in pairwise combination with each species’ soil microbial community as well as a sterilized inoculum. We demonstrated unequivocally that variation in soil microbial communities altered leaf chemical fingerprints for all focal plant species and also changed their allelopathic potential. Soil microbes reduced allelopathic potential in bioassays by increasing germination 25–54% relative to sterile control soils in all four species. Plants grown with their own microbial communities had the lowest allelopathic potential, suggesting that allelochemical production may be lessened when growing with microbes from conspecifics. The allelopathic potential of plants grown in congener and confamilial soils was indistinguishable from each other, indicating an equivalent response to all non-conspecific microbial communities within these closely related genera. Our results clearly demonstrated that soil microbial communities cause changes in leaf tissue chemistry that altered their allelopathic properties. These findings represent a new mechanism of plant–soil feedbacks that may structure perennial plant communities over very small spatial scales that must be explored in much more detail.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Grace S. Lloyd, Siarhei Tsymbalau and Garland P. Waleko for their assistance in the field and greenhouse, Anna J. Herzberger for assistance in the lab, and Sharon N. Dubosky for comments on the manuscript. This work was funded by the G. Murray McKinley Research Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation, a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (#0508012), and an Undergraduate Research Grant from Eastern Illinois University

Author contribution statement

TP and WC designed and conducted the initial project, KP and SM conducted the allelopathy work, TC conducted the HPLC analysis and all authors contributed to the writing and editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Scott J. Meiners.

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Data available from the Dryad Digital Repository: http://dx.doi.org/10.5061/dryad.3418j.

Communicated by Maria J. Pozo.

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Meiners, S.J., Phipps, K.K., Pendergast, T.H. et al. Soil microbial communities alter leaf chemistry and influence allelopathic potential among coexisting plant species. Oecologia 183, 1155–1165 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-3833-4

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Keywords

  • Allelopathy
  • Asteraceae
  • Conditionality
  • Leaf chemistry
  • Soil feedbacks