Soil inoculation steers restoration of terrestrial ecosystems

  • Nature Plants 2, Article number: 16107 (2016)
  • doi:10.1038/nplants.2016.107
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Many natural ecosystems have been degraded because of human activities1,2 and need to be restored so that biodiversity is protected. However, restoration can take decades and restoration activities are often unsuccessful3 because of abiotic constraints (for example, eutrophication, acidification) and unfavourable biotic conditions (for example, competition or adverse soil community composition). A key question is what manageable factors prevent transition from degraded to restored ecosystems and what interventions are required for successful restoration2,4. Experiments have shown that the soil community is an important driver of plant community development5,​6,​7,​8, suggesting that manipulation of the soil community is key to successful restoration of terrestrial ecosystems3,9. Here we examine a large-scale, six-year-old field experiment on ex-arable land and show that application of soil inocula not only promotes ecosystem restoration, but that different origins of soil inocula can steer the plant community development towards different target communities, varying from grassland to heathland vegetation. The impact of soil inoculation on plant and soil community composition was most pronounced when the topsoil layer was removed, whereas effects were less strong, but still significant, when the soil inocula were introduced into intact topsoil. Therefore, soil inoculation is a powerful tool to both restore disturbed terrestrial ecosystems and steer plant community development.

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We thank S. de Bruin, G. Heuvelink, and W. de Boer for their advice, and H. Hofman, H. Veerbeek, L. Veiken and A. Blankena for providing background information on the field site and the experiment. Thanks to R. Wagenaar, C. Raaijmakers, I. Chardon, H. Duyts, Q. Hakkaart, G. Bos, Y. Chau, M. Schrama, S. Schreven, J. Salamon, W. Dimmers, A. Moraru, H.-J. van der Kolk, L. Wit and I. Nugteren for technical assistance. This work was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO ‘Biodiversiteit werkt’ project no. 841.11.008 to TMB). This is publication 6100 of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW).

Author information


  1. Department of Terrestrial Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), PO Box 50, 6700 AB Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • E. R. Jasper Wubs
    • , Wim H. van der Putten
    •  & T. Martijn Bezemer
  2. Laboratory of Nematology, Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR), PO Box 8123, 6700 ES Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • E. R. Jasper Wubs
    •  & Wim H. van der Putten
  3. Vereniging Natuurmonumenten, District Zuid-West Veluwe, Planken Wambuisweg 1a, 6718 SP Ede, The Netherlands

    • Machiel Bosch


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M.B., T.M.B. and W.H.v.d.P. initiated and designed the field experiment, M.B. implemented the field experiment, E.R.J.W. and T.M.B. designed the mesocosm experiment. E.R.J.W. collected and analysed the data and wrote the first draft. All authors contributed to the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to E. R. Jasper Wubs.

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Material

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figs 1–4, Supplementary Tables 1–9 and Supplementary References.