Why are plant–soil feedbacks so unpredictable, and what to do about it?

Jonathan R. De Long*, Ellen L. Fry, G. F. Veen, Paul Kardol

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

80 Citations (Scopus)
43 Downloads (Pure)


The study of feedbacks between plants and soils (plant–soil feedbacks; PSFs) is receiving increased attention. However, PSFs have been mostly studied in isolation of abiotic and biotic drivers that could affect their strength and direction. This is problematic because it has led to limited predictive power of PSFs in “the real world,” leaving large knowledge gaps in our ability to predict how PSFs contribute to ecosystem processes and functions. Here, we present a synthetic framework to elucidate how abiotic and biotic drivers affect PSFs. We focus on two key abiotic drivers (temperature and soil moisture) and two key biotic drivers (above-ground plant consumers and below-ground top-down control of pathogens and mutualists). We focus on these factors because they are known drivers of plants and soil organisms and the ecosystem processes they control, and hence would be expected to strongly influence PSFs. Our framework describes the proposed mechanisms behind these drivers and explores their effects on PSFs. We demonstrate the impacts of these drivers using the fast- to slow-growing plant economics spectrum. We use this well-established paradigm because plants on opposite ends of this spectrum differ in their relationships with soil biota and have developed contrasting strategies to cope with abiotic and biotic environmental conditions. Finally, we present suggestions for improved experimental designs and scientific inference that will capture and elucidate the influence of above- and belowground drivers on PSFs. By establishing the role of abiotic and biotic drivers of PSFs, we will be able to make more robust predictions of how PSFs impact on ecosystem function. plain language summary is available for this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-128
Number of pages11
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date22 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 21 Jan 2019


  • climate
  • herbivory
  • litter
  • plant traits
  • soil food web
  • trophic interactions and cascades


Dive into the research topics of 'Why are plant–soil feedbacks so unpredictable, and what to do about it?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this