A quantitative synthesis of soil microbial effects on plant species coexistence

Xinyi Yan, Jonathan M. Levine, Gaurav S. Kandlikar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Soil microorganisms play a major role in shaping plant diversity, not only through their direct effects as pathogens, mutualists, and decomposers, but also by altering the outcome of plant interactions. In particular, previous research has shown that the soil community often generates frequency-dependent feedback loops among plants that can either stabilize or destabilize species interactions and thereby promote or hinder species coexistence. However, recent insights from modern coexistence theory have shown that microbial effects on plant coexistence depend not only on these stabilizing or destabilizing effects, but also on the degree to which they generate competitive fitness differences. While many previous experiments have generated the data necessary for evaluating microbially mediated fitness differences, these effects have rarely been quantified in the literature. Here, we present a meta-analysis of data from 50 studies, which we used to quantify the microbially mediated (de)stabilization and fitness differences derived from a classic plant-soil feedback model. We found that across 518 plant species pairs, soil microbes generated both stabilization (or destabilization) and fitness differences, but also that the microbially mediated fitness differences dominated. As a consequence, if plants are otherwise equivalent competitors, the balance of soil microbe–generated (de)stabilization and fitness differences drives species exclusion much more frequently than coexistence or priority effects. Our work shows that microbially mediated fitness differences are an important but overlooked effect of soil microbes on plant coexistence. This finding paves the way for a more complete understanding of the processes that maintain plant biodiversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2122088119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number22
StatePublished - May 31 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • competition
  • fitness differences
  • modern coexistence theory
  • plant-soil feedbacks
  • plant–microbe interactions


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