- David Solance Smith, Jen Schweitzer, Philip Turk, Joe Bailey, Stephen Shuster and Thomas Whitham
Aims Soils can act as agents of natural selection, causing differential fitness among genotypes and/or families of the same plant species, especially when soils have extreme physical or chemical properties. More subtle changes in soils, such as variation in microbial communities, may also act as agents of selection. We hypothesized that variation in soil properties within a single river drainage can be a selective gradient, driving local adaptation in plants. Methods Using seeds collected from individual genotypes of Populus angustifolia James and soils collected from underneath the same trees, we use a reciprocal transplant design to test whether seedlings would be locally adapted to their parental soil type. Results We found three patterns: 1. Soils from beneath individual genotypes varied in pH, soil texture, nutrient content, microbial biomass and the physiological status of microorganisms. 2. Seedlings grown in local soils experienced 2.5-fold greater survival than seedlings planted in non-local soils. 3. Using a composite of height, number of leaves and leaf area to measure plant growth, seedlings grew ~20% larger in their local soil than in non-local soil. Our findings were correlated with changes in nitrogen availability and microbial composition of soils. Conclusions These data support the hypothesis that variation in soils across subtle gradients can act as an important selective agent, causing differential fitness and local adaptation in plants.