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Soil-carbon response to warming dependent on microbial physiology


Most ecosystem models predict that climate warming will stimulate microbial decomposition of soil carbon, producing a positive feedback to rising global temperatures1,2. Although field experiments document an initial increase in the loss of CO2 from soils in response to warming, in line with these predictions, the carbon dioxide loss from soils tends to decline to control levels within a few years3,4,5. This attenuation response could result from changes in microbial physiological properties with increasing temperature, such as a decline in the fraction of assimilated carbon that is allocated to growth, termed carbon-use efficiency6. Here we explore these mechanisms using a microbial-enzyme model to simulate the responses of soil carbon to warming by 5 C. We find that declines in microbial biomass and degradative enzymes can explain the observed attenuation of soil-carbon emissions in response to warming. Specifically, reduced carbon-use efficiency limits the biomass of microbial decomposers and mitigates the loss of soil carbon. However, microbial adaptation or a change in microbial communities could lead to an upward adjustment of the efficiency of carbon use, counteracting the decline in microbial biomass and accelerating soil-carbon loss. We conclude that the soil-carbon response to climate warming depends on the efficiency of soil microbes in using carbon.

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Figure 1: Diagram of soil C models.
Figure 2: Modelled soil CO2 and carbon-pool responses to 5 C warming in the enzyme-driven model.
Figure 3: Modelled soil CO2 and carbon-pool responses to 5 C warming in the conventional model.


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R. Conant, W. Parton and G. Ågren commented on the manuscript. M.D.W. and M.A.B. were supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science (BER), S.D.A. by NSF Advancing Theory in Biology, and M.D.W. by DOE’s Northeastern Regional Center of the National Institute for Climatic Change Research, the USDA CSREES and NSF Ecosystems. The work is also a product of the NSF-supported Research Coordination Network on Enzymes in the Environment.

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M.A.B. and M.D.W. conceived the project, and S.D.A. built the model. S.D.A. and M.A.B. conducted model runs. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Steven D. Allison.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Allison, S., Wallenstein, M. & Bradford, M. Soil-carbon response to warming dependent on microbial physiology. Nature Geosci 3, 336–340 (2010).

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