Gradual_Change: ERC Advanced Grant (2016-2022)


A major goal in ecology is to predict how environmental changes, including drivers of global change, affect communities and ecosystem functioning, with society demanding answers to these pressing questions. A key limitation of virtually all experimental approaches addressing such questions is that treatments are delivered abruptly, while many changes occurring in nature are gradual. In this project we comprehensively study consequences of environmental change when delivered abruptly vs. gradually.

This project also takes on the challenges associated with microplastic and its effects in soil; we look at effects on soil processes and soil biota, using a range of experimental approaches.

Press release about the start of the project

Time-lapse View of Ecosystems of the Future (Press release of FU Berlin; March 22, 2016)

Selected project videos on Youtube (last update: 12.02.2022)

  • Microplastic effects on ecosystems Video
  • Multiple influences on soils and soil biota Video
  • Is microplastic a distraction from climate change? Video
  • Rate of change in ecology Video
  • Microplastic pollution: ecotoxicology or global change approaches? Video
  • Microplastic pollution: how to interpret positive effects Video
  • Soil biodiversity conservation (Guerra et al. Science paper) Video

Selected output for a general audience (last update: 12.02.2022)

  • Paper in The Science Breaker (‘Science meets society’) on the Rillig et al. 2019 paper in Science
  • Artikel in Berichte über Landwirtschaft 98 (1): 1-14 (Zeitschrift für Agrarpolitik und Landwirtschaft) Mikroplastik in landwirtschaftlichen Böden – eine versteckte Gefahr? (Leifheit E, Rillig MC)
  • Artikel in Ländlicher Raum 02/2019 (Leifheit E, Rillig MC)
  • Radiointerview (SWR) on microplastic in soil (in German) Podcast

Publications from this project (updated:19.03.2022)

Key conceptual advance; Key experimental/synthesis result


  • Zhu D, Ma J, Li G, Rillig MC, Zhu YG. 2022. Soil plastispheres as hotspots of antibiotic resistance genes and potential pathogens. The ISME Journal 16: 521–532. Link
  • Li E, Krsmanovic A, Ballhausen MB, Rillig MC. 2022. Fungal response to abruptly or gradually delivered antifungal agent Amphotericin B is growth stage dependent. Environmental Microbiology 23: 7701-7709. Link
  • Moreno-Jiménez E, Leifheit EF, Plaza C, Feng L, Bergmann J, Wulf A, Lehmann A, Rillig MC. 2022. Effects of microplastics on crop nutrition in fertile soils and interaction with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture and Environment (in press) Link
  • Orr JA, Rillig MC, Jackson MC. 2022. Similarity of anthropogenic stressors is multifaceted and scale dependent. Natural Sciences 2: e20210076. Link
  • Chaudhary VB, Aguilar-Trigueros CA, Mansour I, Rillig MC. 2022. Fungal dispersal across spatial scales. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics (accepted)
  • Lehmann A, Leifheit EF, Feng L, Bergmann J, Wulf A, Rillig MC. 2022. Microplastic fiber and drought effects on plants and soil are only slightly modified by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Soil Ecology Letters 4: 32-44. Link


  • Camenzind T, Grenz K, Lehmann J, Rillig MC. 2021.  Soil fungal mycelia have unexpectedly flexible stoichiometric C:N and C:P ratios. Ecology Letters 24: 208-218. Link
  • Yang G, Roy J, Veresoglou SD, Rillig MC. 2021. Soil biodiversity enhances the persistence of legumes under climate change. New Phytologist 229:  2945-2956. Link
  • Lozano Y, Aguilar-Trigueros CA, Onandia G, Maaß S, Zhao T, Rillig MC. 2021. Effects of microplastics and drought on ecosystem functions and multifunctionality. Journal of Applied Ecology 54: 988-996. Link
  • Leifheit EF, Lehmann A, Rillig MC. 2021. Potential effects of microplastic on arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Frontiers in Plant Science 12: 626709; doi: 10.3389/fpls.2021.626709. Link
  • Rillig MC, Bonneval K, de Lutz C, Lehmann J, Mansour I, Rapp R, Spačal S, Meyer V. 2021. Ten simple rules for hosting artists in a scientific lab. PLoS Computational Biology 17(2): e1008675. Link
  • Kim SW, Rillig MC. 2021. Research trends of microplastics in the soil environment: comprehensive screening of effects. Soil Ecology Letters; doi: Link
  • Guerra CA, Bardgett RD, Caon L, Crowther TW, Delgado-Baquerizo M, Montanarella L, Navarro L, Orgiazzi A, Singh BK, Tedersoo L, Vargas-Rojas R, Briones MJI, Buscot F, Cameron EK, Cesarz S, Chatzinotas A, Cowan DA, Djukic I, van der Hoogen J, Lehmann A, Maestre FT, Marín C, Reitz T, Rillig MC, Smith LC, de Vries FT, Weigelt A, Wall DH, Eisenhauer N. 2021. Tracking, targeting, and conserving soil biodiversity. Science 371: 239-241. Link
  • Lozano YM, Lehnert T, Linck LT, Lehmann A, Rillig MC. 2021. Microplastic shape, polymer type and concentration affect soil properties and plant biomass. Frontiers in Plant Science 12:616645; doi: 10.3389/fpls.2021.616645. Link
  • Rillig MC, Kim SW, Kim TY, Waldman W. 2021. The global plastic toxicity debt. Environmental Science & Technology 55: 2717-2719. Link
  • Rillig MC, Leifheit EF, Lehmann J. 2021. Microplastic effects on carbon cycling processes in soils. PLOS Biology 19(3): e3001130. Link
  • Rillig MC, Ryo M, Lehmann A. 2021. Classifying human influences on terrestrial ecosystems. Global Change Biology 27: 2273-2278. Link
  • Rillig MC, Hoffmann M, Lehmann A, Liang Y, Lück M, Augustin J. 2021. Microplastic fibers affect dynamics and intensity of CO2 and N2O fluxes from soil differently. Microplastics and Nanoplastics 1: 3; doi: 10.1186/s43591-021-00004-0. Link
  • Liang Y, Lehmann A, Yang G, Leifheit EF, Rillig MC. 2021. Effects of microplastic fibers on soil aggregation and enzyme activities are organic matter dependent. Frontiers in Environmental Science 9: 650155; doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2021.650155. Link
  • Muller L, Ballhausen MB, Andrade-Linares D, Pinek L, Golubeva P, Rillig MC. 2021. Fungus-bacterium associations are widespread in fungal cultures isolated from a semi-arid natural grassland in Germany. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 97: fiab059; doi: 10.1093/femsec/fiab059 Link
  • Bank M, Swarzenski P, Duarte C, Rillig MC, Koelmans A, Metian M, Wright S, Provencher J, Sanden M, Jordaan A, Wagner M, Thiel M, Ok YS. 2021. A global plastic pollution observation system to aid policy. Environmental Science & Technology 55: 7770-7775 Link
  • Lehmann A, Leifheit EF, Gerdawischke M, Rillig MC. 2021. Microplastics have shape- and polymer-dependent effects on soil aggregation and organic matter loss – An experimental and meta-analytical approach. Microplastics and Nanoplastics 1: 7; doi: 10.1186/s43591-021-00007-x. Link
  • Kim SW,  Liang Y, Zhao TT, Rillig MC. 2021. Indirect effects of microplastic-contaminated soils on adjacent soil layers: Vertical changes in soil physical structure and water flow. Frontiers in Environmental Science 9: 681934; doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2021.681934. Link
  • Zhao TT, Lozano YM, Rillig MC. 2021. Microplastics increase soil pH and decrease microbial activities as a function of microplastic shape, polymer type, and exposure time. Frontiers in Environmental Science 9: 675803; doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2021.675803 Link
  • Leifheit EF, Kissener HL, Faltin E, Ryo M, Rillig MC. 2021. Tire abrasion particles negatively affect plant growth even at low concentrations and alter soil biogeochemical cycling. Soil Ecology Letters; doi: 10.1007/s42832-021-0114-2. Link
  • Smith L, Orgiazzi A, Eisenhauer N, Cesarz S, Lochner A, Jones A, Bastida F, Patoine G, Reitz T, Buscot F, Rillig MC, Heintz-Buschart A, Lehmann A, Guerra C. 2021. Large-scale drivers of relationships between soil microbial properties and organic carbon across Europe. Global Ecology and Biogeography 30: 2070-2083. Link
  • Kanold E, Rillig MC, Antunes PM. 2021. Microplastics and phagotrophic soil protists: evidence of ingestion. Soil Organisms 93: 133-140. Link
  • Rillig MC, Lehmann A, Bank MS, Gould KA, Heekeren HR. 2021. Scientists need to better communicate the links between pandemics and global environmental change. Nature Ecology & Evolution 5: 1466–1467. Link
  • Rillig MC, Lehmann A, Orr JA, Waldman WR. 2021. Mechanisms underpinning non-additivity of global change factor effects in the plant-soil system. New Phytologist 232: 1535-1539. Link
  • Kim SW, Leifheit EF, Maaß S, Rillig MC. 2021. Time-dependent toxicity of tire particles on soil nematodes. Frontiers in Environmental Science 9: 744668; doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2021.744668. Link
  • Kim SW, Liang Y, Lozano YM, Rillig MC. 2021. Microplastics reduce the negative effects of litter-derived plant secondary metabolites on nematodes in soil. Frontiers in Environmental Science 9:790560; doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2021.790560 Link


  • Muller LAH, Ballhausen MB, Lakovic M, Rillig MC. 2020. Assessing the robustness of communities and ecosystems in global change research. Global Change Biology 26: e4-e5. Link
  • Lehmann A, Zheng W, Ryo M, Soutschek K, Roy J, Rongstock R, Maaß S, Rillig MC. 2020. Fungal traits important for soil aggregation. Frontiers in Microbiology 10: 2904, doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2019.02904. Link
  • Thakur MP, Phillips HRP, Brose U, de Vries FT, Lavelle P, Loreau M, Mathieu J, Mulder C, van der Putten WH, Rillig MC, Wardle DA, Back EM, Bartz MLC, Bennett JM, Briones MJI, Brown G, Decaëns T, Eisenhauer N, Ferlian O, Guerra CA, König‐Ries B, Orgiazzi A, Ramirez KS, Russell DJ, Rutgers M, Wall DH, Cameron EK. 2020. Towards an integrative understanding of soil biodiversity. Biological Reviews 95: 350-364. Link
  • Berdugo M, Delgado-Baquerizo M, Soliveres S, Hernández-Clemente R, Zhao Y, Gaitán JJ, Gross N, Saiz H, Maire V, Lehmann A, Rillig MC,  Solé RV, Maestre FT. 2020. Global ecosystem thresholds driven by aridity. Science 367: 787-790. Link
  • Lozano YM, Rillig MC. 2020. Effects of microplastic fibers and drought on plant communities. Environmental Science & Technology 54: 6166-6173. Link
  • Rillig MC. 2020. Experimental tools for addressing effects of complex substance mixtures in soil. Soil Organisms 92: 5-7. Link
  • Ballhausen MB, Hewitt R, Rillig MC. 2020. Mimicking climate warming effects on Alaskan soil microbial communities via gradual temperature increase. Scientific Reports 10: 8533; doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-65329-x Link
  • Golubeva P, Ryo M, Muller L, Ballhausen MB, Lehmann A, Sosa-Hernández MA, Rillig MC. 2020. Soil saprobic fungi differ in their response to gradually and abruptly delivered copper. Frontiers in Microbiology 11: 1195; doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2020.01195 Link
  • Waldman WR, Rillig MC. 2020. Microplastic research should embrace the complexity of secondary particles. Environmental Science & Technology 54: 7751-7753. Link
  • Zheng W, Lehmann A, Ryo M, Vályi KK, Rillig MC. 2020. Growth rate trades off with enzymatic investment in soil filamentous fungi. Scientific Reports 10: 11031; doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-68099-8 Link
  • Rillig MC, Lehmann A. 2020. Microplastic in terrestrial ecosystems. Science 368: 1430-1431. Link 
  • Barreto C, Rillig MC, Lindo Z. 2020. Addition of polyester in soil affects decomposition rates but not microarthropod communities. Soil Organisms 92: 109-119. Link
  • Pinek L, Mansour I, Lakovic M, Ryo M, Rillig MC. 2020. Rate of environmental change across scales in ecology. Biological Reviews 95: 1798-1811. Link
  • Rillig MC. 2020. Plastic and plants. Nature Sustainability 3: 887–888. Link
  • Guerra CA, Heintz-Buschart A, Sikorski J, Chatzinotas A, Guerrero-Ramírez N, Cesarz S, Beaumelle L, Rillig MC, Maestre FT, Delgado-Baquerizo M, Buscot F, Overmann J, Patoine G, Phillips HRP, Winter M, Wubet T, Küsel K, Bardgett RD, Cameron EK, Cowan D, Grebenc T, Marín C, Orgiazzi A, Singh BK, Wall DH, Eisenhauer N. 2020. Blind spots in global soil biodiversity and ecosystem function research. Nature Communications 11: 3870; doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-17688-2 Link
  • Lehmann J, Bossio DA, Kögel-Knabner I, Rillig MC. 2020. The concept and future prospects of soil health. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment 1: 544-553. Link
  • Kim SW, Waldman W, Kim TY, Rillig MC. 2020. Effects of different microplastics on nematodes in the soil environment: tracking the extractable additives using an ecotoxicological approach. Environmental Science & Technology 54: 13868–13878. Link


  • Rillig MC, Machado AAS, Lehmann A, Klümper U. 2019. Evolutionary implications of microplastics for soil biota. Environmental Chemistry 16: 3-7. Link
  • McTee M, Bullington L, Rillig MC, Ramsey P. 2019. Do soil bacterial communities respond differently to abrupt or gradual additions of copper. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 95: fiy212. Link
  • Rillig MC, Lehmann A. 2019. Exploring the agricultural parameter space for crop yield and sustainability. New Phytologist 223: 517-519. Link
  • Rillig MC, Lehmann A, Machado AAS, Yang G. 2019. Microplastic effects on plants. New Phytologist 223: 1066-1070. Link
  • Lehmann A, Fitschen K, Rillig MC. 2019. Abiotic and biotic factors influencing the effect of microplastic on soil aggregation. Soil Systems 3: 21, doi:10.3390/soilsystems3010021 Link
  • Ryo M, Aguilar-Trigueros CA, Pinek L, Muller LAH, Rillig MC. 2019. Basic principles of temporal dynamics. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 34: 723-733. Link
  • Rillig MC, Antonovics J. 2019. Microbial biospherics for the experimental study of ecosystem function and evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 116: 11093-11098. Link
  • Machado AAS, Lau CW, Kloas W, Bergmann J, Bachelier J, Faltin E, Becker R, Görlich A, Rillig MC. 2019. Microplastics can change soil properties and affect plant performance. Environmental Science & Technology 53: 6044-6052. Link
  • Rillig MC, Lehmann A, Ryo M, Bergmann J. 2019. Shaping up: towards considering the shape and form of pollutants. Environmental Science & Technology 53: 7925-7926. Link
  • Rillig MC, Bonneval K, Lehmann J. 2019. Sounds of soil: a new world of interactions under our feet. Soil Systems 3: 45, doi: 10.3390/soilsystems3030045 Link
  • Heger T,  Bernard-Verdier M, Gessler A, Greenwood AD, Grossart HP, Hilker M, Keinath S, Kowarik I, Kueffer C, Marquard E, Müller J, Niemeier S, Onandia G, Petermann JS, Rillig MC, Rödel MO, Saul WC, Schittko C, Tockner K, Joshi J, Jeschke J. 2019. Towards an integrative, eco-evolutionary understanding of ecological novelty: Studying and communicating interlinked effects of global change. BioScience 69: 888-899. Link
  • Liang Y, Lehmann A, Ballhausen M, Muller L, Rillig MC. 2019. Experimental warming and microplastic fibers jointly influence soil aggregation by saprobic fungi. Frontiers in Microbiology 10: 2018, doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2019.02018 Link
  • Lehmann A,  Zheng W, Soutschek K, Roy J, Yurkov A, Rillig MC. 2019. Tradeoffs in hyphal traits determine mycelium architecture in saprobic fungi. Scientific Reports 9: 14152; doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-50565-7. Link
  • Rillig MC, Ryo M, Lehmann A, Aguilar-Trigueros CA, Buchert S, Wulf A, Iwasaki A, Roy J, Yang G. 2019. The role of multiple global change factors in driving soil functions and microbial biodiversity. Science 366: 886-890. Link


  • Machado AAS, Kloas W, Zarfl C, Hempel S, Rillig MC. 2018. Microplastics as an emerging threat to terrestrial ecosystems. Global Change Biology 24: 1405-1416. Link
  • Powell JR, Rillig MC. 2018. Biodiversity of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and ecosystem function. New Phytologist 220: 1059-1075. Link
  • Rillig MC, Bonkowski M. 2018. Microplastic and soil protists: a call for research. Environmental Pollution 241: 1128-1131. Link
  • Rillig MC. 2018. Microplastic disguising as soil carbon storage. Environmental Science & Technology 52: 6079-6080. Link
  • Machado AAS, Lau CW, Till J, Kloas W, Lehmann A, Becker R, Rillig MC. 2018. Impacts of microplastics on the soil biophysical environment. Environmental Science & Technology 52:  9656-9665. Link
  • Yang G, Wagg C, Veresoglou SD, Hempel S, Rillig MC. 2018. How soil biota drive ecosystem stability. Trends in Plant Science 23: 1057-1067. Link
  • Eisenhauer N, Hines J, Isbell F, van der Plas F, Hobbie SE, Kazanski KE, Lehmann A, Liu M, Lochner A, Rillig MC, Vogel A, Worm K, Reich PB. 2018. Plant diversity maintains multiple soil functions in future environments. eLife 7: e41228. Link


  • Rillig MC, Muller LAH, Lehmann A. 2017. Soil aggregates as massively concurrent evolutionary incubators. The ISME Journal 11: 1943-1948. Link
  • Lehmann A, Zheng W, Rillig MC. 2017. Soil biota contributions to soil aggregation. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1: 1828-1835. Link