Letter | Published:

Biogeochemical plant–soil microbe feedback in response to climate warming in peatlands

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 273277 (2013) | Download Citation


Peatlands act as global sinks of atmospheric carbon (C) through the accumulation of organic matter1, primarily made up of decay-resistant litter of peat mosses2. However, climate warming has been shown to promote vascular plant growth in peatlands, especially ericaceous shrubs3. A change in vegetation cover is in turn expected to modify above-ground/below-ground interactions4, but the biogeochemical mechanisms involved remain unknown. Here, by selecting peatlands at different altitudes to simulate a natural gradient of soil temperature, we show that the expansion of ericaceous shrubs with warming is associated with an increase of polyphenol content in both plant litter and pore water. In turn, this retards the release of nitrogen (N) from decomposing litter, increases the amount of dissolved organic N and reduces N immobilization by soil microbes. A decrease of soil water content with increasing temperature promotes the growth of fungi, which feeds back positively on ericaceous shrubs by facilitating the symbiotic acquisition of dissolved organic N. We also observed a higher release of labile C from vascular plant roots at higher soil temperatures, which promotes the microbial investment in C-degrading enzymes. Our data suggest that climate-induced changes in plant cover can reduce the productivity of peat mosses and potentially prime the decomposition of organic matter by affecting the stoichiometry of soil enzymatic activity.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    et al. Peatlands and the carbon cycle: From local processes to global implications—a synthesis. Biogeosciences 5, 1475–1491 (2008).

  2. 2.

    , , , & Cell-wall polysaccharides play an important role in decay resistance of Sphagnumand actively depressed decomposition in vitro. Biogeochemistry 103, 45–57 (2011).

  3. 3.

    et al. Decreased summer water table depth affects peatland vegetation. Basic Appl. Ecol. 10, 330–339 (2009).

  4. 4.

    & Links between plant litter chemistry, species diversity, and belowground ecosystem function. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 19780–19785 (2008).

  5. 5.

    et al. Carbon respiration from subsurface peat accelerated by climate warming in the subarctic. Nature 460, 616–619 (2009).

  6. 6.

    & Sources of CO2 emission from a northern peatland: Root respiration, exudation and decomposition. Ecology 86, 1825–1834 (2005).

  7. 7.

    & The unexpected versatility of plants: Organic nitrogen use and availability in terrestrial ecosystems. Oecologia 128, 305–316 (2001).

  8. 8.

    , , & Litter quality and the temperature sensitivity of decomposition. Ecology 86, 320–326 (2005).

  9. 9.

    et al. in Climate Change and Switzerland 2050: Expected Impacts on Environment, Society and Economy12–23 (OcCC & ProClim, 2007).

  10. 10.

    , , & Polyphenol control of nitrogen release from pine litter. Nature 377, 227–229 (1995).

  11. 11.

    , , & Nitrogen transformations in boreal forest soils: Does composition of plant secondary compounds give an explanation? Plant Soil 350, 1–26 (2012).

  12. 12.

    & Laccases and other polyphenol oxidases in ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhiza 12, 105–116 (2002).

  13. 13.

    & Nitrogen mobilization from protein-polyphenol complex by ericoid and ectomycorrhizal fungi. Soil Biol. Biochem. 28, 1603–1612 (1996).

  14. 14.

    & Natural abundance of 15N in nitrogen-limited forests and tundra can estimate nitrogen cycling through mycorrhizal fungi: A review. Ecosystems 11, 815–830 (2008).

  15. 15.

    , , & Influence of balsam poplar tannin fractions on carbon and nitrogen dynamics in Alaskan taiga floodplain soils. Soil Biol. Biochem. 33, 1827–2839 (2001).

  16. 16.

    , & Polyphenols as regulators of plant-litter-soil interactions in northern California’s pygmy forests: A positive feedback? Biogeochemistry 42, 189–220 (1998).

  17. 17.

    & Linking root production to aboveground plant characteristics and water table in a temperate bog. Plant Soil 336, 219–231 (2010).

  18. 18.

    & Drought-induced carbon loss in peatlands. Nature Geosci. 4, 895–900 (2011).

  19. 19.

    , , , & Summer drought decreases soil fungal diversity and associated phenol oxidase activity in upland Calluna heathland soil. FEMS Microbiol. Ecol. 66, 426–436 (2008).

  20. 20.

    , & Ecoenzymatic stoichiometry of microbial organic nutrient acquisition in soil and sediment. Nature 462, 795–799 (2009).

  21. 21.

    , , & Effects of short- and long-term water-level drawdown on the populations and activity of aerobic decomposers in a boreal peatland. Glob. Change Biol. 13, 491–510 (2007).

  22. 22.

    , & Microbial degradation of hydrolysable and condensed tannin polyphenol–protein complexes in soils from different land-use histories. Soil Biol. Biochem. 39, 1479–1492 (2007).

  23. 23.

    et al. The effect of resource quantity and resource stoichiometry on microbial carbon-use-efficiency. FEMS Microbiol. Ecol. 73, 430–440 (2010).

  24. 24.

    & C:N:P stoichiometry in soils: Is there a ‘Redfield ratio’ for the microbial biomass? Biogeochemistry 85, 235–252 (2007).

  25. 25.

    et al. Interactions between elevated CO2 and warming could amplify DOC exports from peatland catchment. Environ. Sci. Technol. 41, 3146–3152 (2007).

  26. 26.

    & Microbial community abundance and structure are determinants of soil organic matter mineralization in the presence of labile carbon. Soil Biol. Biochem. 43, 1705–1713 (2011).

  27. 27.

    et al. Stability of organic carbon in deep soil layers controlled by fresh carbon supply. Nature 450, 277–281 (2007).

  28. 28.

    et al. Elevated CO2 effects on peatland plant community carbon dynamics and DOC production. Ecosystems 10, 635–647 (2007).

  29. 29.

    , & Microclimatic response to increasing shrub cover and its effect on Sphagnum CO2 exchange in a bog. Ecoscience 19, 89–97 (2012).

  30. 30.

    , & Preferential use of organic nitrogen for growth by a non-mycorrhizal arctic sedge. Nature 361, 150–13 (1993).

Download references


We thank M. Lamentovicz, E. A. D. Mitchell, T. Spiegelberger, E. Feldmeyer-Christe, P. Gomez, A. Margot, P. Iacumin, G. Cavallo, R. Marchesini, J. D. Teuscher, E. Rossel, K. Vernez and J. D. Welch for assistance. The Service des Forêts, de la Faune et de la Nature (Canton de Vaud) and the Service de la promotion de la nature—Office de l’agriculture et de la nature (Canton de Berne) are acknowledged for giving the permission to access the study peatlands. This study was financially supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (project ClimaBog, grant 205321-129981 to L.B.).

Author information


  1. WSL Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, Site Lausanne, Station 2, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Luca Bragazza
    • , Julien Parisod
    •  & Alexandre Buttler
  2. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), Laboratory of Ecological Systems (ECOS), Station 2, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Luca Bragazza
    • , Julien Parisod
    •  & Alexandre Buttler
  3. University of Ferrara, Department of Life Science and Biotechnologies, Corso Ercole I d’Este 32, I-44121 Ferrara, Italy

    • Luca Bragazza
  4. Laboratoire de Chrono-Environnement, UMR 6249 CNRS—INRA, Université de Franche-Comté, 25030 Besançon, France

    • Alexandre Buttler
  5. Soil and Ecosystem Ecology Laboratory, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ, UK

    • Richard D. Bardgett


  1. Search for Luca Bragazza in:

  2. Search for Julien Parisod in:

  3. Search for Alexandre Buttler in:

  4. Search for Richard D. Bardgett in:


L.B. and A.B designed the study; L.B. carried out the research with assistance from J.P. and A.B.; L.B. analysed the data with contribution from all the authors; L.B. and R.D.B. wrote the paper with contribution from A.B. and J.P.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luca Bragazza.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading