Inclusive fitness in agriculture

E. Toby Kiers, R. Ford Denison

Abstract

Trade-offs between individual fitness and the collective performance of crop and below-ground symbiont communities are common in agriculture. Plant competitiveness for light and soil resources is key to individual fitness, but higher investments in stems and roots by a plant community to compete for those resources ultimately reduce crop yields. Similarly, rhizobia and mycorrhizal fungi may increase their individual fitness by diverting resources to their own reproduction, even if they could have benefited collectively by providing their shared crop host with more nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively. Past selection for inclusive fitness (benefits to others, weighted by their relatedness) is unlikely to have favoured community performance over individual fitness. The limited evidence for kin recognition in plants and microbes changes this conclusion only slightly. We therefore argue that there is still ample opportunity for human-imposed selection to improve cooperation among crop plants and their symbionts so that they use limited resources more efficiently. This evolutionarily informed approach will require a better understanding of how interactions among crops, and interactions with their symbionts, affected their inclusive fitness in the past and what that implies for current interactions.

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