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Plants often compete with closely related individuals due to limited dispersal, leading to two commonly invoked predictions on competitive outcomes. Kin selection, from evolutionary theory, predicts that competition between relatives will likely be weaker. The niche partitioning hypothesis, from ecological theory, predicts that competition between close relatives will likely be stronger. We tested for evidence consistent with either of these predictions by growing an annual legume in kin and nonkin groups in the greenhouse. We grew plant groups in treatments of symbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria differing in strain identity and composition to determine if differences in the microbial environment can facilitate or obscure plant competition patterns consistent with kin selection or niche partitioning. Nonkin groups had lower fitness than expected, based on fitness estimates of the same genotypes grown among kin. Higher fitness among kin groups was observed in mixtures of N-fixing bacteria strains compared to single inoculations of bacteria strains present in the soil, which increased fitness differences between kin and nonkin groups. Lower fitness in nonkin groups was likely caused by increased competitive asymmetry in nonkin groups due to genetic differences in plant size combined with saturating relationships with plant size and fitness- i.e. Jensen’s inequality. Our study suggests that microbial soil symbionts alter competitive dynamics among kin and nonkin. Our study also suggests that kin groups can have higher fitness, as predicted by kin selection theory, through a commonly heritable trait (plant size), without requiring kin recognition mechanisms.
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