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Contemporary evolution rivals the effects of rhizobium presence on community and ecosystem properties in experimental mesocosms


Because genotypes within a species commonly differ in traits that influence other species, whole communities, or even ecosystem functions, evolutionary change within one key species may affect the community and ecosystem processes. Here we use experimental mesocosms to test how the evolution of reduced cooperation in rhizobium mutualists in response to 20 years of nitrogen fertilization compares to the effects of rhizobium presence on soil nitrogen availability and plant community composition and diversity. The evolution of reduced rhizobium cooperation caused reductions in soil nitrogen, biological nitrogen fixation, and leaf nitrogen concentrations that were as strong as, or even stronger than, experimental rhizobium inoculation (presence/absence) treatments. Effects of both rhizobium evolution and rhizobium inoculation on legume dominance, plant community composition, and plant species diversity were often smaller in magnitude, but suggest that rhizobium evolution can alter the relative abundance of plant functional groups. Our findings indicate that the consequences of rapid microbial evolution for ecosystems and communities can rival the effects resulting from the presence or abundance of keystone mutualists.

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Availability of data and material

Data used in this paper has been made publically available from the Dryad Data Repository ( Rhizobium strains used in this experiment are available upon reasonable request from JAL or KDH.

Code availability

Code used for the data analyses presented in this paper has been made publically available from the Dryad Data Repository (


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We thank Kane Keller for advice on constructing the experimental mesocosms, members of the Lau lab for help harvesting the experiment, and members of the Lau and Heath labs for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. We appreciate help from Jonathan Treffkorn, Sheeri Hanjra, Lily Zhao, Adam Cullian, Nate Lawrence, Shuying Guo, and Zoe Frankowicz in processing and analyzing the leaf samples. This is KBS publication #2327.


This research was supported by NSF DEB-1257756 awarded to JAL and KDH, by the NSF Long-Term Ecological Research Program at the Kellogg Biological Station (NSF DEB-1637653) and by Michigan State University AgBioResearch.

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JAL, KDH, and DJW conceived the experiments. JAL, DJW, and MDH designed the experiments. DSW, JES, and MDH performed the experiments. WHY conducted the isotope analyses. JAL and DJW analyzed the data. JAL and DJW wrote the bulk of the initial manuscript; WHY wrote the isotope analysis methods; all other authors edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jennifer A. Lau.

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Communicated by Joel Sachs.

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Lau, J.A., Hammond, M.D., Schmidt, J.E. et al. Contemporary evolution rivals the effects of rhizobium presence on community and ecosystem properties in experimental mesocosms. Oecologia 200, 133–143 (2022).

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