Belowground interactions shift the relative importance of direct and indirect genetic effects



Mark A. Genung, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee – Knoxville, Knoxville, TN 37996. Tel: +001 (865) 946-1764; Fax: +001 (865) 974-3067; E-mail:


Intraspecific genetic variation can affect decomposition, nutrient cycling, and interactions between plants and their associated belowground communities. However, the effects of genetic variation on ecosystems can also be indirect, meaning that genes in a focal plant may affect ecosystems by altering the phenotype of interacting (i.e., neighboring) individuals. We manipulated genotype identity, species identity, and the possibility of belowground interactions between neighboring Solidago plants. We hypothesized that, because our plants were nitrogen (N) limited, the most important interactions between focal and neighbor plants would occur belowground. More specifically, we hypothesized that the genotypic identity of a plant's neighbor would have a larger effect on belowground biomass than on aboveground biomass, but only when neighboring plants were allowed to interact belowground. We detected species- and genotype-level variation for aboveground biomass and ramet production. We also found that belowground biomass and ramet production depended on the interaction of neighbor genotype identity and the presence or absence of belowground interactions. Additionally, we found that interspecific indirect genetic effects (IIGEs; changes in focal plant traits due to the genotype identity of a heterospecific neighbor) had a greater effect size on belowground biomass than did focal genotype; however, this effect only held in pots that allowed belowground interactions. These results expand the types of natural processes that can be attributed to genotypes by showing that, under certain conditions, a plant's phenotype can be strongly determined by the expression of genes in its neighbor. By showing that IIGEs are dependent upon plants being able to interact belowground, our results also provide a first step for thinking about how genotype-based, belowground interactions influence the evolutionary outcomes of plant-neighbor interactions.