Plant-soil feedbacks is becoming an important concept for explaining vegetation dynamics, the invasiveness of introduced exotic species in new habitats and how terrestrial ecosystems respond to global land use and climate change. Using a new conceptual model, we show how critical alterations in plant-soil feedback interactions can change the assemblage of plant communities. We highlight recent advances, define terms and identify future challenges in this area of research and discuss how variations in strengths and directions of plant-soil feedbacks can explain succession, invasion, response to climate warming and diversity-productivity relationships. While there has been a rapid increase in understanding the biological, chemical and physical mechanisms and their interdependencies underlying plant-soil feedback interactions, further progress is to be expected from applying new experimental techniques and technologies, linking empirical studies to modelling and field-based studies that can include plant-soil feedback interactions on longer time scales that also include long-term processes such as litter decomposition and mineralization. Significant progress has also been made in analysing consequences of plant-soil feedbacks for biodiversity-functioning relationships, plant fitness and selection. To further integrate plant-soil feedbacks into ecological theory, it will be important to determine where and how observed patterns may be generalized, and how they may influence evolution. Synthesis. Gaining a greater understanding of plant-soil feedbacks and underlying mechanisms is improving our ability to predict consequences of these interactions for plant community composition and productivity under a variety of conditions. Future research will enable better prediction and mitigation of the consequences of human-induced global changes, improve efforts of restoration and conservation and promote sustainable provision of ecosystem services in a rapidly changing world. © 2013 The Authors. Journal of Ecology © 2013 British Ecological Society.