Beauty of collaborative experiments

Submitted by editor on 30 April 2019.Get the paper!

I always am fascinated by the possibility of tweaking certain parameters and seeing their effects on a given process or a pattern. Experiments are usually my way of doing it. During my post-doc at iDiv, my office was next to a fungal ecologist-Ainhoa Martinez. We often talked about her work on the interaction between the two soil fungal species-both well known (arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and Trichoderma), and both associated with benefitting plants. At the same institute, I met Christiane Roscher, who is well-known for her knowledge about the German flora. Imagine the luxury of having these experts next door. Forced by my “parameter tweaking” habit, I asked them if we could link the interaction of the two fungal species with the interaction among plants. The result was an experimental idea to test whether these two plant-friendly fungal species affect the interaction between several pairs of closely related (grassland) plants.



Picture 1: First week of experiment


Question driven experiments are full of thrills. We work hard to make sure experiments run well, harvest the experiment with colleagues, spend hours to collect the data and draw those first figures hoping for some cool results. There is another pleasure in experimenting with plants: Plants! Seeing them grow from seedling to flowering stage is just a phenomenal experience (Picture 1 and Picture 2).

Picture 2: Final week of experiment

One of our main results is that one of the fungal species (arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi) almost always outperformed the other fungi (Trichoderma) whether we grew them in plant monocultures or in plant pairs. The past work of Ainhoa also had indicated this, but in agricultural plants and only in their monocultures. This competitive interaction between the two fungi only relaxed competition in one plant pair among the several pair-wise plant competitions. We concluded that plant-plant interactions (the process) are inconsistently affected by the consistent competition between the two plant-friendly fungal species (the parameter tweak).

There is much to learn about how interactions at one level associate to the other. I believe that experiments will help us know about the right set of parameters and the tweaks. I would have never even thought of this question if I would not have Ainhoa and Christiane as office neighbors. Funnily, this experiment turned out also to be about plant and fungal neighbors.

Written by: Madhav P. Thakur (

Insights into Oikos papers