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Soil inoculation steers restoration of terrestrial ecosystems


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 development58, 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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Figure 1: The effect of soil inoculation with two different soil inocula on plant and soil community composition in the field after topsoil removal.
Figure 2: Changes in abundance of plant species groups in response to soil inoculation.
Figure 3: Differences in plant community composition and the control because of inoculation (10% w/w) with grassland and heathland soil inocula in a controlled mesocosm experiment.
Figure 4: Comparison of the effect of soil inoculation on plant and soil community composition in plots with and without topsoil removal.


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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




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to E. R. Jasper Wubs.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Material

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figs 1–4, Supplementary Tables 1–9 and Supplementary References. (PDF 623 kb)

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Wubs, E., van der Putten, W., Bosch, M. et al. Soil inoculation steers restoration of terrestrial ecosystems. Nature Plants 2, 16107 (2016).

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