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Nutrient distribution and neighbours can impact plant growth, but how neighbours shape root-foraging strategy for nutrients is unclear. Here, we explore new patterns of plant foraging for nutrients as affected by neighbours to improve nutrient acquisition. Maize (Zea mays) was grown alone (maize), or with maize (maize/maize) or faba bean (Vicia faba) (maize/faba bean) as a neighbour on one side and with or without a phosphorus (P)-rich zone on the other in a rhizo-box experiment. Maize demonstrated root avoidance in maize/maize, with reduced root growth in ‘shared’ soil, and increased growth away from its neighbours. Conversely, maize proliferated roots in the proximity of neighbouring faba bean roots that had greater P availability in the rhizosphere (as a result of citrate and acid phosphatase exudation) compared with maize roots. Maize proliferated more roots, but spent less time to reach, and grow out of, the P patches away from neighbours in the maize/maize than in the maize/faba bean experiment. Maize shoot biomass and P uptake were greater in the heterogeneous P treatment with maize/faba bean than with maize/maize system. The foraging strategy of maize roots is an integrated function of heterogeneous distribution of nutrients and neighbouring plants, thus improving nutrient acquisition and maize growth. Understanding the foraging patterns is critical for optimizing nutrient management in crops.
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