It is well established that agricultural practices alter the composition and diversity of soil microbial communities. However, the impact of changing soil microbial communities on the functioning of the agroecosystems is still poorly understood. Earlier work showed that soil tillage drastically altered microbial community composition. Here we tested, using an experimental grassland (Lolium, Trifolium, Plantago) as a model system, whether soil microbial communities from conventionally tilled (CT) and non-tilled (NT) soils have different influences on plant productivity and nutrient acquisition. We specifically focus on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), as they are a group of beneficial soil fungi that can promote plant productivity and ecosystem functioning and are also strongly affected by tillage management.
Soil microbial communities from CT and NT soils varied greatly in their effects on the grassland communities. Communities from CT soil increased overall biomass production more than soil communities from NT soil. This effect was mainly due to a significant growth promotion of Trifolium by CT microorganisms. In contrast to CT soil inoculum, NT soil inoculum increased plant phosphorus concentration and total plant P content, demonstrating that the soil microbial communities from NT fields enhance P uptake. Differences in AM fungal community composition resulting, for instance, in twofold greater hyphal length in NT soil communities when compared to CT, are the most likely explanation for the different plant responses to CT and NT soil inocula.
A range of field studies have shown that plant P uptake increases when farmers change to conservation tillage or direct seeding. Our results indicate that this enhanced P uptake results from enhanced hyphal length and an altered AM fungal community. Our results further demonstrate that agricultural management practices indirectly influence ecosystem services and plant community structure through effects on soil biota.