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Plant species richness elicits changes in the metabolome of grassland species via soil biotic legacy


Species‐rich plant communities can induce unique soil biotic legacy effects through changing the abundance and composition of soil biota. These soil legacy effects can cause feedbacks to influence plant performance. In addition, soil biota can induce (defensive) secondary metabolites in shoots and roots and thus affect plant-herbivore interactions. We hypothesize that plant diversity‐driven soil biotic legacy effects elicit changes in the shoot and root metabolome.

We tested this hypothesis by establishing an experiment with four plant species. We grew plants in a sterile substrate inoculated with soil conditioned by different plant species communities: (a) monocultures of either of the four species, (b) the four species in a mixture, (c) an eight species mixture including all four species or (d) a sterile inoculum. After at least 8 weeks in the field, we estimated shoot herbivory. At the same time, we took root and shoot samples for metabolomics analyses by liquid chromatography quadrupole time‐of‐flight mass spectrometry.

We found that shoot and root metabolomes of all plants grown in sterile soil differed significantly from those grown in living soil. The plant metabolomes in living soils differed by species and tissue. Across all species, shoots displayed a greater richness of secondary metabolites than roots. The richness of secondary metabolites differed by species and among living soils. The conditioning species richness significantly affected the Shannon diversity of secondary metabolites in Centaurea jacea. Shoot herbivory positively correlated with the richness and Shannon diversity of secondary metabolites in Leucanthemum vulgare. We detected multiple metabolites that together explained up to 88% of the variation in herbivory in the shoots of C. jacea and Plantago lanceolata.

Synthesis. Our findings suggest that plant diversity‐driven shifts in soil biota elicit changes in the composition and diversity of shoot and root secondary metabolites. However, these plant responses and their effect on shoot herbivores are species‐specific. Tracking changes in plant secondary chemistry in response to soil biotic legacy effects will help to understand the mechanisms that govern species‐specific plant-plant and plant-herbivore interactions.


Ristok, C., Poeschl, Y., Dudenhöffer, J. H., Ebeling, A., Eisenhauer, N., Vergara, F. et al. (2019). Plant species richness elicits changes in the metabolome of grassland species via soil biotic legacy. Journal of Ecology, 107(5), 2240-2254. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13185

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