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Spatial variation in soil biota mediates plant adaptation to a foliar pathogen

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Summary

  • Theory suggests that below-ground spatial heterogeneity may mediate host–parasite evolutionary dynamics and patterns of local adaptation, but this has rarely been tested in natural systems.
  • Here, we test experimentally for the impact of spatial variation in the abiotic and biotic soil environment on the evolutionary outcome of the interaction between the host plant Plantago lanceolata and its specialist foliar pathogen Podosphaera plantaginis.
  • Plants showed no adaptation to the local soil environment in the absence of natural enemies. However, quantitative, but not qualitative, plant resistance against local pathogens was higher when plants were grown in their local field soil than when they were grown in nonlocal field soil. This pattern was robust when extending the spatial scale beyond a single region, but disappeared with soil sterilization, indicating that soil biota mediated plant adaptation.
  • We conclude that below-ground biotic heterogeneity mediates above-ground patterns of plant adaptation, resulting in increased plant resistance when plants are grown in their local soil environment. From an applied perspective, our findings emphasize the importance of using locally selected seeds in restoration ecology and low-input agriculture.

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