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Soil community composition and the regulation of grazed temperate grassland

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The effect of the community composition of soil microbes on ecosystem processes has received relatively little attention. Here we examined the variation in soil microbial composition in a Yellowstone National Park grassland and the effect of that variation on the growth, in a greenhouse, of the dominant grass in the community. Plants and their rhizospheric soil were collected from paired, Poa pratensis-dominated grassland plots located inside and outside a 40-year-old exclosure. P. pratensis aboveground, belowground, and whole plant growth were greater in pots with soil communities from grazed grassland compared to fenced grassland, indicating (1) soil microbial communities differed, and (2) this difference influenced the growth of the plant that dominated both grasslands. Treating pots with fungicide (benomyl) suppressed the soil community influence, indicating that different fungal communities caused the soil microbe effect. In addition, two lines of evidence are consistent with the hypothesis that arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal (AMF) species composition affected P. pratensis: (1) a divergence in AMF spore communities in the two field soils, and (2) little evidence of pathogenic fungi. These findings emphasize the need to examine the role that the composition of the soil microbial community plays in controlling terrestrial ecosystems.

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We thank V. Kurth and H. Loring for collecting the plant and soil material, J. Wolf, G. Cuenca, and N.C. Johnson for assistance with the AMF spore analyses, and S.J. McNaughton for commenting on an early draft. Discussions with C. de Mazancourt and S. Hartley stimulated this study and NSF grants DEB-9726569 to D. Frank and DEB-0087017 to C. Gehring supported the research.

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Correspondence to Douglas A. Frank.

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Frank, D.A., Gehring, C.A., Machut, L. et al. Soil community composition and the regulation of grazed temperate grassland. Oecologia 137, 603–609 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-003-1385-2

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  • Grassland
  • Herbivory
  • Mycorrhizae
  • Soil microbial community
  • Yellowstone National Park.