The temporal dimension of plant-soil microbe interactions: Mechanisms promoting feedback between generations

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6 Scopus citations


Soil microbes can influence plant competitive outcomes by stabilizing plant community dynamics or mediating plant competitive hierarchies. Which effect dominates depends on whether microbial effects can extend beyond the focal conditioning individual. While it is well known that microbial effects can extend to other individuals through space, we lack an explicit theoretical understanding of the factors that regulate their spread to other individuals in subsequent generations. Here, we examine how the commonly assumed stabilizing effects of host-specific pathogens in fact depend on two factors that allow microbial effects to be cross-generational—which plant demographic vital rate is influenced by microbes and the conditioning and decay rates of soil microbial communities. With a novel patch occupancy model that incorporates the transition of soil states following plant colonization and mortality, we show that host-specific pathogens enable plant coexistence when they suppress conspecific plant colonization of empty patches but contribute to competitive hierarchies when they modify only the mortality and fecundity of the conditioning plant individual. In a series of model extensions, we further demonstrate that these latter microbial effects can still promote coexistence, but only when microbial communities decay slowly following plant death, thereby allowing microbial effects to be crossgenerational. Our study calls for further empirical work quantifying the demographic rates most affected by soil microbes as well as the timescales of conditioning and decay.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)80-94
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Coexistence
  • Competitive hierarchy
  • Decay rate
  • Demographic process
  • Janzen-Connell hypothesis
  • Plant-soil feedback


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