Tundra soil carbon is vulnerable to rapid microbial decomposition under climate warming

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Volume:
6,
Pages:
595–600
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nclimate2940
Received
Accepted
Published online

Microbial decomposition of soil carbon in high-latitude tundra underlain with permafrost is one of the most important, but poorly understood, potential positive feedbacks of greenhouse gas emissions from terrestrial ecosystems into the atmosphere in a warmer world1, 2, 3, 4. Using integrated metagenomic technologies, we showed that the microbial functional community structure in the active layer of tundra soil was significantly altered after only 1.5 years of warming, a rapid response demonstrating the high sensitivity of this ecosystem to warming. The abundances of microbial functional genes involved in both aerobic and anaerobic carbon decomposition were also markedly increased by this short-term warming. Consistent with this, ecosystem respiration (Reco) increased up to 38%. In addition, warming enhanced genes involved in nutrient cycling, which very likely contributed to an observed increase (30%) in gross primary productivity (GPP). However, the GPP increase did not offset the extra Reco, resulting in significantly more net carbon loss in warmed plots compared with control plots. Altogether, our results demonstrate the vulnerability of active-layer soil carbon in this permafrost-based tundra ecosystem to climate warming and the importance of microbial communities in mediating such vulnerability.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Warming effects on soil variables and ecosystem C fluxes.
    Figure 1: Warming effects on soil variables and ecosystem C fluxes.

    Grey bars represent control plots and black bars represent warmed treatment plots. a, Soil temperature in both growing season (May to September 2010) and wintertime (December 2009 to March 2010) averaged across 5, 10, 20 and 40cm. b, Soil moisture. c, Maximum thaw depth. d, Standard cellulose filter paper decomposition rate (mass loss) in the field. e, Proportion of soil C pools in total organic C, including labile C pool 1 (LCP1, mainly polysaccharides) and 2 (LCP2, mostly cellulose), and recalcitrant C pool (RCP). f, Growing season (May to September 2010), wintertime (October 2009 to April 2010) and annual ecosystem C fluxes, which were estimated on the basis of the C amount from CO2 emissions. GPP, gross primary productivity; Reco, ecosystem respiration; NEE, net ecosystem C exchange. Positive values indicate C sink, and negative values represent C source. Error bars represent standard error of the mean. The differences between warmed and control plots were tested using two-tailed t tests, indicated by when p < 0.05, or when p < 0.10. Panels ad,f were reanalysed from previously published data12, 23, 31.

  2. Warming effects on functional genes involved in biogeochemical cycling processes.
    Figure 2: Warming effects on functional genes involved in biogeochemical cycling processes.

    a, C degradation from GeoChip data. The targeted substrates were arranged in order from labile to recalcitrant C. GeoChip data are presented as the signal difference between warmed and control plots (warmed–control). Error bars represent standard error. Significance is indicated by when p < 0.05. b, Anaerobic processes from GeoChip data. c, N processes from GeoChip data. The percentage change in N gene abundance in response to warming is indicated in parenthesis. Genes where change in abundance was significant (p < 0.05) are labelled in red. Grey-coloured genes were not targeted by the version of GeoChip used here, not detected or not applicable. d, Abundance of subsystems involved in C, N, phosphorus and sulfur cycling from metagenomic shotgun sequence data. Changes in subsystems are indicated as fold change (log2 (warmed/control)) in abundance. Significant differences between warmed and control plots are highlighted with green squares. e, Response ratios showing significant changes in abundance of gene clusters involved in C and N cycling from the metagenomic shotgun sequence data. These gene clusters were identified by searching the shotgun sequence data sets using GeoChip genes as queries. Each cluster on the x axis represents a group of sequences among which the similarities are ≤95%. The GenBank GI numbers of the representative sequences for the gene clusters are listed in Supplementary Table 8. Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals of abundance differences between warmed and control groups. The full names of the genes in this figure are listed in Supplementary Table 7.

  3. A conceptual model of the impact of warming on the active layer of tundra ecosystem processes.
    Figure 3: A conceptual model of the impact of warming on the active layer of tundra ecosystem processes.

    Greenhouse gas pools are represented by green square frames, material pools by yellow square frames, and biological processes by frames in the shape of blue punched tape. Material flows are indicated by thicker black arrows. Impacts of environmental attributes (for example, soil temperature) and microbial community are marked by narrow arrows in black and red, respectively, and labelled with a ‘+ if increases in gene abundance were observed in this study.

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Author information

  1. These authors contributed equally to this work.

    • Kai Xue &
    • Mengting M. Yuan

Affiliations

  1. State Key Joint Laboratory of Environment Simulation and Pollution Control, School of Environment, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China

    • Kai Xue &
    • Jizhong Zhou
  2. Institute for Environmental Genomics, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73019, USA

    • Kai Xue,
    • Mengting M. Yuan,
    • Zhou J. Shi,
    • Yujia Qin,
    • Ye Deng,
    • Lei Cheng,
    • Liyou Wu,
    • Zhili He,
    • Joy D. Van Nostrand &
    • Jizhong Zhou
  3. Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma 73019, USA

    • Kai Xue,
    • Mengting M. Yuan,
    • Zhou J. Shi,
    • Yujia Qin,
    • Ye Deng,
    • Lei Cheng,
    • Liyou Wu,
    • Zhili He,
    • Joy D. Van Nostrand,
    • Yiqi Luo &
    • Jizhong Zhou
  4. Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 10085, China

    • Ye Deng
  5. College of Life Sciences, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou 310058, China

    • Lei Cheng
  6. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Rosvel Bracho &
    • Edward. A. G. Schuur
  7. Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Susan Natali
  8. Center for Ecosystem Sciences and Society, Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86001, USA

    • Edward. A. G. Schuur
  9. School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and School of Biology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia 30332, USA

    • Chengwei Luo &
    • Konstantinos T. Konstantinidis
  10. Center for Microbial Ecology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan 48824, USA

    • Qiong Wang,
    • James R. Cole &
    • James M. Tiedje
  11. Earth Science Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94270, USA

    • Jizhong Zhou

Contributions

All authors contributed intellectual input and assistance to this study and manuscript preparation. J.Z., E.A.G.S., Y.L., J.M.T. and K.T.K. developed the original concepts. K.X., M.M.Y., Z.J.S., L.W., Z.H., Y.Q., Y.D., J.D.V.N., Q.W. and C.L. contributed reagents and data analysis. R.B. handled all soils processing and subsampling for microbial analysis. S.N. provided key field data. M.M.Y. and L.C. did sequencing and GeoChip hybridization. K.X., M.M.Y. and J.Z. performed data analysis and integration. K.X., M.M.Y. and J.Z. wrote the paper with help from E.A.G.S., K.T.K., Y.L., J.R.C. and J.M.T.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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