The temperature response of soil microbial efficiency and its feedback to climate


Soils are the largest repository of organic carbon (C) in the terrestrial biosphere and represent an important source of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, releasing 60–75 Pg C annually through microbial decomposition of organic materials1,2. A primary control on soil CO2 flux is the efficiency with which the microbial community uses C. Despite its critical importance to soil–atmosphere CO2 exchange, relatively few studies have examined the factors controlling soil microbial efficiency. Here, we measured the temperature response of microbial efficiency in soils amended with substrates varying in lability. We also examined the temperature sensitivity of microbial efficiency in response to chronic soil warming in situ. We find that the efficiency with which soil microorganisms use organic matter is dependent on both temperature and substrate quality, with efficiency declining with increasing temperatures for more recalcitrant substrates. However, the utilization efficiency of a more recalcitrant substrate increased at higher temperatures in soils exposed to almost two decades of warming 5 °C above ambient. Our work suggests that climate warming could alter the decay dynamics of more stable organic matter compounds, thereby having a positive feedback to climate that is attenuated by a shift towards a more efficient microbial community in the longer term.

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Figure 1: Temperature response of microbial efficiency (%) in forest soil amended with substrates varying in lability.
Figure 2: Effect of chronic soil warming on microbial efficiency in control versus heated soils following amendment with phenol.
Figure 3: Modelled changes in soil organic C content in response to changes in the microbial efficiency parameter for soils with and without warming.


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M. Knorr, B. Godbois, J. Herszage and R. Rousseau provided laboratory assistance with sample analysis. Stable isotope measurements were conducted at the Stable Isotope Facility at the University of California—Davis. This work, including maintenance of the long-term soil warming experiments, was supported by an NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award, the NSF Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program, a DOE National Institute for Climatic Change Research (NICCR) grant, and a Harvard Forest Bullard Fellowship to S.D.F. We would especially like to acknowledge the NSF LTER programme for providing intellectual and financial support of long-term ecological experiments without which this work would not have been possible.

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S.D.F. and J.S. conceived the project. S.D.F. collected the soil samples, conducted the soil incubations, and led the data analysis and manuscript preparation. J.S. supervised the stable isotope analysis and modelling exercise and assisted with data interpretation. J.L. conducted the model runs. J.M.M. designed and conducted the long-term (18 year) soil warming experiment, made the in situ measurements of net nitrogen mineralization, and assisted with data interpretation. All authors contributed to writing the final manuscript.

Correspondence to Serita D. Frey or Johan Six.

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Frey, S., Lee, J., Melillo, J. et al. The temperature response of soil microbial efficiency and its feedback to climate. Nature Clim Change 3, 395–398 (2013).

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