Soil biota contributions to soil aggregation

  • Nature Ecology & Evolution 118281835 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0344-y
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Humankind depends on the sustainability of soils for its survival and well-being. Threatened by a rapidly changing world, our soils suffer from degradation and biodiversity loss, making it increasingly important to understand the role of soil biodiversity in soil aggregation—a key parameter for soil sustainability. Here, we provide evidence of the contribution of soil biota to soil aggregation on macro- and microaggregate scales, and evaluate how specific traits, soil biota groups and species interactions contribute to this. We conducted a global meta-analysis comprising 279 soil biota species. Our study shows a clear positive effect of soil biota on soil aggregation, with bacteria and fungi generally appearing to be more important for soil aggregation than soil animals. Bacteria contribute strongly to both macro- and microaggregates while fungi strongly affect macroaggregation. Motility, body size and population density were important traits modulating effect sizes. Investigating species interactions across major taxonomic groups revealed their beneficial impact on soil aggregation. At the broadest level, our results highlight the need to consider biodiversity as a causal factor in soil aggregation. This will require a shift from the current management and physicochemical perspective to an approach that fully embraces the significance of soil organisms, their diversity and interactions.

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We thank J. Antonovics for input on this paper. A.L. and M.C.R. acknowledge funding from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grant number RI 1815/16-1). M.C.R. additionally acknowledges funding from a European Research Council Advanced Grant (694368) and the Federal Ministry for Education and Research-funded project INPLAMINT.

Author information


  1. Institut für Biologie, Plant Ecology, Freie Universität Berlin, Altensteinstr. 6, D-14195, Berlin, Germany

    • Anika Lehmann
    •  & Matthias C. Rillig
  2. Berlin-Brandenburg Institute of Advanced Biodiversity Research, D-14195, Berlin, Germany

    • Anika Lehmann
    •  & Matthias C. Rillig
  3. College of Marine Science, Shandong University, Wenhuan West Road 180, C-264209, Weihai, Shandong, China

    • Weishuang Zheng


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A.L. designed and performed the research; W.Z. contributed analytical tools; A.L. and M.C.R. wrote the manuscript; all authors contributed to the final version of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anika Lehmann.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Tables 1–4, Supplementary Figures 1–21, Supplementary References

  2. Life sciences reporting summary.

    Life sciences reporting summary.

  3. Supplementary Data

    Single Taxa dataset, Interacting Taxa dataset.