Context-dependent induction of allelopathy in plants under competition

4 June 2019

Uesugi, Akane; Johnson, Robert; Kessler, Andre

Some plants use allelopathy to compete against neighbouring plants, and the ability to induce allelopathic compound production in response to competition is hypothesized to be adaptive, as plants can save costs of metabolite production in the absence of competitors. However, whether plants induce allelopathy has rarely been explored so far.
We studied the inducibility of polyacetylenes—putative allelopathic compounds in Solidago altissima—in response to competition. Polyacetylenes were found in natural soil surrounding S. altissima patches within the range of concentration known to inhibit competitor growth. Individual S. altissima plants with higher polyacetylene concentration in roots suppressed the growth of the competitor plants more, suggesting that root polyacetylene levels proximate plants’ allelopathic capacity. Competition induced polyacetylenes in a context-dependent manner: Whereas introduced Japanese and Australian populations of S. altissima had higher constitutive concentration of polyacetylenes than the native North American populations, inducibility was observed only in Australian plants, where the population is still at an early stage of invasion. Also, induction became more prominent under nutrient depletion, where enhanced allelopathy may be particularly beneficial for suppressing a competitor’s exploitative capacity. Finally, we found weak evidence for a trade-off between constitutive and induced polyacetylenes.
The observed patterns suggest that allelopathic plants could respond to competition by inducing allelochemical production, but the benefit of such plasticity may vary across time and space. Shifts in competitor communities in introduced range over time may shape plant’s plastic responses to competition, while variation in resource availability may alter competitive environment to influence the degree to which plants induce allelopathy.