Changes in plant diversity influence microbial community composition and function, but the mechanisms that underlie these patterns are still debated. A common hypothesis is that more diverse plant communities will additively increase belowground resources (root biomass and root exudates) and, therefore, stimulate a more abundant and diverse microbial community. However, large-scale, plot level, studies of these dynamics fail to capture individual plant-plant interactions that could non-additively influence microbial communities. Localized, species-specific plant neighbor interactions and historical planting contexts can have been suggested to alter plant-microbial associations, but the mechanisms for these shifts is unknown.
My research investigates how interactions with neighboring plant species alters a focal plant’s microbial community structure and function. Root exudates, or complex soluble mixtures of carbons and secondary metabolites, are central to plants' interactions with one another and their microbial communities. Therefore, I predict that root exudates are likely a primary mechanism driving neighbor-induced changes in microbial communities.
In my research, I use a combination of greenhouse and lab-based experiments, untargeted metabolomics, and microbial sequencing to determine the mechanisms by which neighboring plants alter each other's microbial communities. Understanding how plant-specific interactions mediate microbial associations is a key area of research for both predicting relationships between plant and microbial communities and for informing more successful combinations for intercropping.