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Plant traits and soil characteristics shown to vary along climate gradient

Climate driven plant traits exert influence on ecosystem functioning through soil conditioning

Climate change will have profound effects on the distribution of many plant species and is likely to alter many genetic traits in favour of these new conditions. The knock-on effects of these genetic changes for wider ecological function has received little attention but are key to understanding how ecosystems will alter with global warming. As climatic conditions shift they drive the fixation of new, advantageous adaptations creating lasting genetic changes. These changes translate into functional traits which exert an influence on the soil microbiome through microbial interactions, root secretions and the creation of leaf litter. These all combine to create tangible changes in ecosystem functioning.

Populus angustifolia is a foundation tree species with a wide distribution across the western United States, from Arizona to Montana growing in high elevation riparian areas. This distribution covers a wide climate range containing locally adapted populations, each with distinct genetic adaptations due to the reduced gene flow between ecotypes. This temperature distribution was used to simulate the effects of climate change on the species and monitor the impacts of soil conditioning around genetically distinct populations.

Mean annual temperature and genetic collections were taken from 17 field sites, covering a range of 10.4oC. Samples were taken from 3-5 collection sites per population and terminal shoot cuttings from each genotype were planted out in a common greenhouse to measure how traits associated with plant growth including annual bud break, which marks the end of dormancy period and start of the growing season, and above ground biomass differed between populations. Soil samples were collected from immediately around the base of and in-between trees, these ‘conditioned’ and unconditioned’ soils were compared within and between sites. The differing impacts of this conditioning, or lack of, were measured through nitrogen and carbon levels along with fungal and bacterial diversity through qPCR.

Results showed that different genotypes influenced their local soils in distinct ways; creating changes in soil dynamics and microbial communities. Seedlings grown in their own soils had double the chances of survival compared to those which weren’t despite these conditioned soils having reduced fertility. These seedlings also displayed the highest genetic variation in performance traits. With higher mean annual temperature there was an observed decrease in genetic and phenotypic variation in bud break time. This, however, led to greater soil conditioning effects by trees in these populations. The relationship between soil carbon and nitrogen levels and plants varied with increasing temperature. Overall, in conditioned soils, nitrogen was 23% higher and carbon was 20% higher. Fungi, however, were found to be more relatively abundant in non-conditioned soils.

These findings show the strong links between evolutionary responses to abiotic factors and measurable ecological impact. This system will also feed back to the tree population as soil properties and changes in soil microbiome directly impact growth and distribution. By integrating phenotypic and genotypic data, this study has been able to address the potential impacts of climate change on ecosystem functioning more fully.

Read the full paper here: Ware, I.M., Van Nuland, M.E., Schweitzer, J.A., Yang, Z., Schadt, C.W., Sidak‐Loftis, L.C., Stone, N.E., Busch, J.D., Wagner, D.M. and Bailey, J.K., 2019. Climate‐driven reduction of genetic variation in plant phenology alters soil communities and nutrient pools. Global change biology.

To find over 1,200 similar papers use the following search in the Forest Science Database: "climate change" AND "soil" AND ("bacteria" OR "fungi" OR "nitrogen" OR "carbon") AND "conditioning" AND ("tree" OR "forest")