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Live soil inocula, not host population or domestication status, is the predominant driver of growth benefits to cowpea


Purpose: Crops rely on microbes for critical services, but host benefits can be influenced by local makeup of microbiota and the host’s capacity to select optimal strains. We investigated host benefits that cowpeas receive from microbiota depending on plant genotype, their domestication status, and soil source. Methods: We performed a full factorial soil inoculation experiment. Twenty diverse cowpea genotypes, selected from wild and domesticated populations, were exposed to soil rinsates from four agricultural sites across California, all having cowpea cultivation and varied physicochemical features. Cowpea investment in and benefit from microbiota was quantified by measuring host growth response to inoculation, nodulation, and segregating trait variation. Results: Variation in induction of root nodulation and strikingly heterogenous benefits to host growth were observed among soil sites. These effects were restricted to live soil inocula but were absent in autoclaved soil controls that lacked microbiota. Cowpeas expressed heritable variation in nodulation, but there was negligible effect of plant population or domestication status on the net benefit that hosts gained from microbiota. Conclusion: Soils varied substantially and consistently among cultivation sites and were the most prominent driver shaping host growth effects on cowpeas. While growth benefits vary among host cultivars, soil microbiota (and the conditions that maintain them) predominantly shape plant performance in agricultural settings.

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