Plant biodiversity and the regeneration of soil fertility

George N. Furey, David Tilman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


Fertile soils have been an essential resource for humanity for 10,000 y, but the ecological mechanisms involved in the creation and restoration of fertile soils, and especially the role of plant diversity, are poorly understood. Here we use results of a long-term, unfertilized plant biodiversity experiment to determine whether biodiversity, especially plant functional biodiversity, impacted the regeneration of fertility on a degraded sandy soil. After 23 y, plots containing 16 perennial grassland plant species had, relative to monocultures of these same species, ∼30 to 90% greater increases in soil nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium, cation exchange capacity, and carbon and had ∼150 to 370% greater amounts of N, K, Ca, and Mg in plant biomass. Our results suggest that biodiversity, likely in combination with the increased plant productivity caused by higher biodiversity, led to greater soil fertility. Moreover, plots with high plant functional diversity, those containing grasses, legumes, and forbs, accumulated significantly greater N, K, Ca, and Mg in the total nutrient pool (plant biomass and soil) than did plots containing just one of these three functional groups. Plant species in these functional groups had trade-offs between their tissue N content, tissue K content, and root mass, suggesting why species from all three functional groups were essential for regenerating soil fertility. Our findings suggest that efforts to regenerate soil C stores and soil fertility may be aided by creative uses of plant diversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2111321118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number49
StatePublished - Dec 7 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank Troy Mielke and the numerous interns and staff who, starting in 1994, managed experimental treatments and collected data. NSF LTER Grants DEB-9411972, DEB-0080382, DEB-0620652, DEB-1234162, and DEB-1831944 funded this work, as did a Balzan Foundation award to D.T.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Biodiversity
  • Carbon storage
  • Soil fertility
  • Soil restoration
  • Trait trade-offs


Dive into the research topics of 'Plant biodiversity and the regeneration of soil fertility'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this