Transgenerational effects of parent plant competition on offspring development in contrasting conditions

Ecology. 2021 Dec;102(12):e03531. doi: 10.1002/ecy.3531. Epub 2021 Oct 7.


Conditions during a parent's lifetime can induce phenotypic changes in offspring, providing a potentially important source of variation in natural populations. Yet, to date, biotic factors have seldom been tested as sources of transgenerational effects in plants. In a greenhouse experiment with the generalist annual Polygonum persicaria, we tested for effects of parental competition on offspring by growing isogenic parent plants either individually or in competitive arrays and comparing their seedling progeny in contrasting growth environments. Offspring of competing vs. non-competing parents showed significantly altered development, resulting in greater biomass and total leaf area, but only when growing in neighbor or simulated canopy shade, rather than sunny dry conditions. A follow-up experiment in which parent plants instead competed in dry soil found that offspring in dry soil had slightly reduced growth, both with and without competitors. In neither experiment were effects of parental competition explained by changes in seed provisioning, suggesting a more complex mode of regulatory inheritance. We hypothesize that parental competition in moist soil (i.e., primarily for light) confers specific developmental effects that are beneficial for light-limited offspring, while parental competition in dry soil (i.e., primarily for belowground resources) produces offspring of slightly lower overall quality. Together, these results indicate that competitive conditions during the parental generation can contribute significantly to offspring variation, but these transgenerational effects will depend on the abiotic resources available to both parents and progeny.

Keywords: Polygonum persicaria; non-genetic inheritance; parental effects; plant density; seed provisioning; transgenerational plasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Plants*
  • Seedlings
  • Seeds
  • Soil


  • Soil

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.14109713