Rapid transgenerational adaptation in response to intercropping reduces competition

  1. Laura Stefan  Is a corresponding author
  2. Nadine Engbersen
  3. Christian Schöb
  1. Agroscope, Switzerland
  2. ETH Zurich, Switzerland
  3. Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Spain


By capitalising on positive biodiversity-productivity relationships, intercropping provides opportunities to improve agricultural sustainability. Intercropping is generally implemented using commercial seeds that were bred for maximal productivity in monocultures, thereby ignoring the ability of plants to adapt over generations to the surrounding neighbourhood, notably through increased complementarity, i.e. reduced competition or increased facilitation. This is why using monoculture-adapted seeds for intercropping might limit the benefits of crop diversity on yield. However, the adaptation potential of crops and the corresponding changes in complementarity have not been explored in annual crop systems. Here we show that plant-plant interactions among annual crops shifted towards reduced competition and/or increased facilitation when the plants were growing in the same community type as their parents did in the previous two generations. Total yield did not respond to this common coexistence history, but in fertilized conditions, we observed increased overyielding in mixtures with a common coexistence history. Surprisingly, we observed character convergence between species sharing the same coexistence history for two generations, in monocultures but also in mixtures: the six crop species tested converged towards taller phenotypes with lower leaf dry matter content. This study provides the first empirical evidence for the potential of parental diversity affecting plant-plant interactions, species complementarity and therefore potentially ecosystem functioning of the following generations in annual cropping systems. Although further studies are required to assess the context-dependence of these results, our findings may still have important implications for diversified agriculture as they illustrate the potential of targeted cultivars to increase complementarity of species in intercropping, which could be achieved through specific breeding for mixtures.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available on Zenodo: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5223410

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Laura Stefan

    Plant Production Systems, Agroscope, Nyon, Switzerland
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-0798-9782
  2. Nadine Engbersen

    Institute of Agricultural Sciences, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. Christian Schöb

    Área de Biodiversidad y Conservación, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Móstoles, Spain
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


Swiss National Science Fundation (PP00P3_170645)

  • Christian Schöb

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Bernhard Schmid, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Publication history

  1. Preprint posted: January 17, 2022 (view preprint)
  2. Received: February 3, 2022
  3. Accepted: August 22, 2022
  4. Accepted Manuscript published: September 13, 2022 (version 1)
  5. Version of Record published: October 11, 2022 (version 2)


© 2022, Stefan et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Laura Stefan
  2. Nadine Engbersen
  3. Christian Schöb
Rapid transgenerational adaptation in response to intercropping reduces competition
eLife 11:e77577.

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