Understanding the mechanisms of biospheric feedbacks to climate change is critical to project future climate warming1,2,3. Although microorganisms catalyse most biosphere processes related to fluxes of greenhouse gases, little is known about the microbial role in regulating future climate change4. Integrated metagenomic and functional analyses of a long-term warming experiment in a grassland ecosystem showed that microorganisms play crucial roles in regulating soil carbon dynamics through three primary feedback mechanisms: shifting microbial community composition, which most likely led to the reduced temperature sensitivity of heterotrophic soil respiration; differentially stimulating genes for degrading labile but not recalcitrant carbon so as to maintain long-term soil carbon stability and storage; and enhancing nutrient-cycling processes to promote plant nutrient-use efficiency and hence plant growth. Elucidating microbially mediated feedbacks is fundamental to understanding ecosystem responses to climate warming and provides a mechanistic basis for carbon–climate modelling.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 print issues and online access
$209.00 per year
only $17.42 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Heimann, M. & Reichstein, M. Terrestrial ecosystem carbon dynamics and climate feedbacks. Nature 451, 289–292 (2008).
Walther, G. R. et al. Ecological responses to recent climate change. Nature 416, 389–395 (2002).
Parmesan, C. & Yohe, G. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature 421, 37–42 (2003).
Bardgett, R. D., Freeman, C. & Ostle, N. J. Microbial contributions to climate change through carbon cycle feedbacks. ISME J. 2, 805–814 (2008).
IPCC Global Climate Projections (Cambridge Univ. Press), (2007).
Luo, Y. Q. Terrestrial carbon-cycle feedback to climate warming. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 38, 683–712 (2007).
Cox, P. M., Betts, R. A., Jones, C. D., Spall, S. A. & Totterdell, I. J. Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model. Nature 408, 184–187 (2000).
Friedlingstein, P. et al. Climate-carbon cycle feedback analysis: Results from the (CMIP)-M-4 model intercomparison. J. Clim. 19, 3337–3353 (2006).
Luo, Y. Q., Sherry, R., Zhou, X. H. & Wan, S. Q. Terrestrial carbon-cycle feedback to climate warming: Experimental evidence on plant regulation and impacts of biofuel feedstock harvest. GCB Bioenergy 1, 62–74 (2009).
Allison, S. D., Wallenstein, M. D. & Bradford, M. A. Soil-carbon response to warming dependent on microbial physiology. Nature Geosci. 3, 336–340 (2010).
Gruber, N. & Galloway, J. N. An Earth-system perspective of the global nitrogen cycle. Nature 451, 293–296 (2008).
Sogin, M. L. et al. Microbial diversity in the deep sea and the underexplored ‘rare biosphere’. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 12115–12120 (2006).
He, Z. et al. GeoChip 3.0 as a high-throughput tool for analyzing microbial community composition, structure and functional activity. ISME J. 4, 1167–1179 (2010).
He, Z. et al. GeoChip: A comprehensive microarray for investigating biogeochemical, ecological and environmental processes. ISME J. 1, 67–77 (2007).
He, Z. et al. Metagenomic analysis reveals a marked divergence in the structure of belowground microbial communities at elevated CO2 . Ecol. Lett. 13, 564–575 (2010).
Zhou, J. Z, Kang, S., Schadt, C. W. & Garten, C. T. Spatial scaling of functional gene diversity across various microbial taxa. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 7768–7773 (2008).
Luo, Y. Q., Wan, S. Q., Hui, D. F. & Wallace, L. L. Acclimatization of soil respiration to warming in a tall grass prairie. Nature 413, 622–625 (2001).
Reich, P. B. et al. Plant diversity enhances ecosystem responses to elevated CO2 and nitrogen deposition. Nature 410, 809–812 (2001).
Zhou, X., Wan, S. Q. & Luo, Y. Q. Source components and interannual variability of soil CO2 efflux under experimental warming and clipping in a grassland ecosystem. Glob. Change Biol. 13, 761–775 (2007).
Kirschbaum, M. U. F. Soil respiration under prolonged soil warming: Are rate reductions caused by acclimation or substrate loss? Glob. Change Biol. 10, 1870–1877 (2004).
Rustad, L. E. et al. A meta-analysis of the response of soil respiration, net nitrogen mineralization, and aboveground plant growth to experimental ecosystem warming. Oecologia 126, 543–562 (2001).
Hartley, I. P., Heinemeyer, A. & Ineson, P. Effects of three years of soil warming and shading on the rate of soil respiration: Substrate availability and not thermal acclimation mediates observed response. Glob. Change Biol. 13, 1761–1770 (2007).
Parton, W. J., Schimel, D. S., Cole, C. V. & Ojima, D. S. Analysis of factors controlling soil organic-matter levels in great-plains grasslands. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 51, 1173–1179 (1987).
Heim, A. & Schmidt, M. W. I. Lignin turnover in arable soil and grassland analysed with two different labelling approaches. Eur. J. Soil Sci. 58, 599–608 (2007).
Kephart, K. D. & Buxton, D. R. Forage quality responses of C3 and C4 perennial grasses to shade. Crop Sci. 33, 831–837 (1993).
Kramer, M. G., Sollins, P., Sletten, R. S. & Swart, P. K. N isotope fractionation and measures of organic matter alteration during decomposition. Ecology 84, 2021–2025 (2003).
Wan, S. Q., Hui, D. F., Wallace, L. & Luo, Y. Q. Direct and indirect effects of experimental warming on ecosystem carbon processes in a tallgrass prairie. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 19, GB2014 (2005).
An, Y. A. et al. Plant nitrogen concentration, use efficiency, and contents in a tallgrass prairie ecosystem under experimental warming. Glob. Change Biol. 11, 1733–1744 (2005).
Allison, S. D. & Martiny, J. B. H. Resistance, resilience, and redundancy in microbial communities. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 11512–11519 (2008).
Zhou, J. Z., Bruns, M. A. & Tiedje, J. M. DNA recovery from soils of diverse composition. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 62, 316–322 (1996).
This work is supported by the US Department of Energy, Biological Systems Research on the Role of Microbial Communities in Carbon Cycling Program (DE-SC0004601), and Oklahoma Bioenergy Center (OBC). The GeoChips and associated computational pipelines used in this study were supported by ENIGMA—Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies through the Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, the US Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231 and by the US Department of Agriculture (Project 2007-35319-18305) through the NSF-USDA Microbial Observatories Program.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Zhou, J., Xue, K., Xie, J. et al. Microbial mediation of carbon-cycle feedbacks to climate warming. Nature Clim Change 2, 106–110 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1331
This article is cited by
Nature Climate Change (2023)
Journal of Soils and Sediments (2023)
Halophyte functional groups influence seasonal variations in rhizosphere microbial necromass and enzyme activities in an inland saline ecosystem
Biology and Fertility of Soils (2023)
Mini-review: Current and Future Perspectives on Microbially Focused Restoration Strategies in Tallgrass Prairies
Microbial Ecology (2023)