Crop diversity facilitates soil aggregation in relation to soil microbial community composition driven by intercropping

  • Xiu-li Tian
  • Cheng-bao Wang
  • Xing-guo Bao
  • Ping Wang
  • Xiao-fei Li
  • Si-cun Yang
  • Guo-chun Ding
  • Peter Christie
  • Long LiEmail author
Regular Article


Background and Aims

Studies verify that intercropping increases soil macro-aggregates but the mechanism underlying the increase is poorly understood.


Three long-term field experiments were conducted starting in 2009 at three sites in an oasis in northwest China. The first was a split-plot design: Rhizobium (with or without inoculation) and three cropping systems (faba bean/maize intercropping and corresponding monocultures). The second and third experiments were both single-factorial randomized block designs with nine cropping systems (maize intercropped with faba bean, chickpea, soybean, or oilseed rape, and the corresponding monocultures). Soil aggregates were determined by the wet sieving method. Microbial biomass and community composition in 2015 and 2016 were determined by phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) and high throughput sequencing analysis of 16S rRNA.


Soil macro-aggregates (> 2 mm) in intercropping systems increased by 15.5–58.6% across three sites and two years, an effect derived partly from increased relative abundance of soil Sordariales, from enhanced arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi biomass, or from reduced relative abundance of Nitrospirae, depending on soil type.


Intercropping alters soil microbial community composition and further facilitates soil aggregation. These findings provide insights into the mechanisms underlying the maintenance of biodiversity in ecosystem functioning.


Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi Crop diversity Intercropping Legumes Long-term field experiments Maize Nitrospirae Soil aggregates Sordariales 



Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi




Fatty acid methyl esters


Fungal biomass






non-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi




Phospholipid fatty acid


Partial least squares discriminant analysis


Structural equation model



We appreciate Prof. Huiru Peng from China Agricultural University for her great help in statistical analysis of results. We also thank Fei Wang and Ning Shi for help with the high throughput sequencing work and Fangfang Zhang for suggestions leading to the improvement of an earlier version of the manuscript. This work was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) (Project no. 31430014).

Supplementary material

11104_2018_3924_MOESM1_ESM.doc (994 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 993 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Beijing Key Laboratory of Biodiversity and Organic Farming, Key Laboratory of Plant and Soil Interactions, Chinese Ministry of Education, College of Resources and Environmental SciencesChina Agricultural UniversityBeijingChina
  2. 2.Institute of Soils, Fertilizers and Water-Saving AgricultureGansu Academy of Agricultural SciencesLanzhouChina
  3. 3.Institute of Crop ScienceNingxia Academy of Agriculture and ForestryYinchuanChina

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