Unfair trade underground revealed by integrating data with Nash bargaining models

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New Phytologist


Mutually beneficial resource exchange is fundamental to global biogeochemical cycles and plant and animal nutrition. However, there is inherent potential conflict in mutualisms, as each organism benefits more when the exchange ratio (‘price’) minimizes its own costs and maximizes its benefits. Understanding the bargaining power that each partner has in these interactions is key to our ability to predict the exchange ratio and therefore the functionality of the cell, organism, community and ecosystem. We tested whether partners have symmetrical (‘fair’) or asymmetrical (‘unfair’) bargaining power in a legume–rhizobia nitrogen-fixing symbiosis using measurements of carbon and nitrogen dynamics in a mathematical modeling framework derived from economic theory. A model of symmetric bargaining power was not consistent with our data. Instead, our data indicate that the growth benefit to the plant (Medicago truncatula) has greater weight in determining trade dynamics than the benefit to the bacteria. Quantitative estimates of the relative power of the plant revealed that the plant's influence rises as soil nitrogen availability decreases and trade benefits to both partners increase. Our finding that M. truncatula legumes have more bargaining power than their rhizobial partner at lower nitrogen availabilities highlights the importance of context-dependence for the evolution of mutualism with increasing nutrient deposition.

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