Plant-soil feedback: testing the generality with the same grasses in serpentine and prairie soils

Brenda B Casper, Stephen P Bentivenga, Baoming Ji, Jennifer H Doherty, Harry M Edenborn, Danny J Gustafson
Ecology 2008, 89 (8): 2154-64
Plants can alter soil properties in ways that feed back to affect plant performance. The extent that plant-soil feedback affects co-occurring plant species differentially will determine its impact on plant community structure. Whether feedback operates consistently across similar plant communities is little studied. Here, the same grasses from two eastern U.S. serpentine grasslands and two midwestern tallgrass prairie remnants were examined for plant-soil feedback in parallel greenhouse experiments. Native soils were homogenized and cultured (trained) for a year with each of the four grasses. Feedback was evaluated by examining biomass variation in a second generation of (tester) plants grown in the trained soils. Biomass was lower in soils trained by conspecifics compared to soils trained by heterospecifics in seven of 15 possible cases; biomass was greater in conspecific soils in one other. Sorghastrum nutans exhibited lower biomass in conspecific soils for all four grasslands, so feedback may be characteristic of this species. Three cases from the Hayden prairie site were explained by trainer species having similar effects across all tester species so the relative performance of the different species was little affected; plants were generally larger in soils trained by Andropogon gerardii and smaller in soils trained by S. nutans. Differences among sites in the incidence of feedback were independent of serpentine or prairie soils. To explore the causes of the feedback, several soil factors were measured as a function of trainer species: nutrients and pH, arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) spore communities, root colonization by AM fungi and putative pathogens, and functional diversity in bacterial communities as indicated by carbon substrate utilization. Only variation in nutrients was consistent with any patterns of feedback, and this could explain the greater biomass in soils trained by A. gerardii at Hayden. Feedback at Nottingham (one of the serpentine sites) differed, most notably for A. gerardii, from that of similar past studies that used different experimental protocols. To understand the consequences of feedback for plant community structure, it is important to consider how multiple species respond to the same plant-induced soil variation as well as differences in the feedback detected between greenhouse and field settings.

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