Winning and losing with microbes: how microbially mediated fitness differences influence plant diversity

Gaurav S. Kandlikar, Christopher A. Johnson, Xinyi Yan, Nathan J.B. Kraft, Jonathan M. Levine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Interactions between plants and soil microbes can strongly influence plant diversity and community dynamics. Soil microbes may promote plant diversity by driving negative frequency-dependent plant population dynamics, or may favor species exclusion by providing one species an average fitness advantage over others. However, past empirical research has focused overwhelmingly on the consequences of frequency-dependent feedbacks for plant species coexistence and has generally neglected the consequences of microbially mediated average fitness differences. Here we use theory to develop metrics that quantify microbially mediated plant fitness differences, and show that accounting for these effects can profoundly change our understanding of how microbes influence plant diversity. We show that soil microbes can generate fitness differences that favour plant species exclusion when they disproportionately harm (or favour) one plant species over another, but these fitness differences may also favor coexistence if they trade off with competition for other resources or generate intransitive dominance hierarchies among plants. We also show how the metrics we present can quantify microbially mediated fitness differences in empirical studies, and explore how microbial control over coexistence varies along productivity gradients. In all, our analysis provides a more complete theoretical foundation for understanding how plant–microbe interactions influence plant diversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1178-1191
Number of pages14
JournalEcology letters
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Coexistence
  • competition
  • mutualisms
  • pathogens
  • plant-soil feedback
  • rhizosphere


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