Our basic understanding of plant litter decomposition informs the assumptions underlying widely applied soil biogeochemical models, including those embedded in Earth system models. Confidence in projected carbon cycle–climate feedbacks therefore depends on accurate knowledge about the controls regulating the rate at which plant biomass is decomposed into products such as CO2. Here we test underlying assumptions of the dominant conceptual model of litter decomposition. The model posits that a primary control on the rate of decomposition at regional to global scales is climate (temperature and moisture), with the controlling effects of decomposers negligible at such broad spatial scales. Using a regional-scale litter decomposition experiment at six sites spanning from northern Sweden to southern France—and capturing both within and among site variation in putative controls—we find that contrary to predictions from the hierarchical model, decomposer (microbial) biomass strongly regulates decomposition at regional scales. Furthermore, the size of the microbial biomass dictates the absolute change in decomposition rates with changing climate variables. Our findings suggest the need for revision of the hierarchical model, with decomposers acting as both local- and broad-scale controls on litter decomposition rates, necessitating their explicit consideration in global biogeochemical models.

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We thank R. Pas and M. Hundscheid for lab assistance, and the Röbäcksdalen field station staff for providing land and logistic support at the Umeå site. Research was supported by grants to M.A.B. from the US National Science Foundation (DEB-1457614), The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (Visiting Professors Programme), and the Netherlands Production Ecology & Resource Conservation Programme for Visiting Scientists. G.F.V. was supported by an NWO-VENI from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (863.14.013). M.M.-F. and W.H.v.d.P. were supported by a European Research Council grant (ERC-Adv 260-55290), and G.T.F. by grant EC2CO-Multivers. We thank the Bradford lab group for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

  1. Mark A. Bradford and G. F. Veen contributed equally to the work.


  1. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 06511, USA

    • Mark A. Bradford
    •  & Daniel S. Maynard
  2. Department of Terrestrial Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), 6700 AB, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Mark A. Bradford
    • , G. F. (Ciska) Veen
    • , Ella M. Bradford
    • , Marta Manrubia-Freixa
    •  & Wim H. van der Putten
  3. UMR 6553 ECOBIO – OSUR, University Rennes I – CNRS, Campus Beaulieu, Avenue du Gl Leclerc, 35042, Rennes Cedex, France

    • Anne Bonis
  4. The Rubenstein School, University of Vermont, 81 Carrigan Drive, Burlington, VT, 05405, USA

    • Aimee T. Classen
    •  & Gregory S. Newman
  5. The Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, 2100, Copenhagen Ø, Denmark

    • Aimee T. Classen
    •  & Gregory S. Newman
  6. Systems Ecology, Department of Ecological Science, Vrije Universiteit, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • J. Hans C. Cornelissen
    •  & Richard S. P. Logtestijn
  7. Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich, Univeritätstrasse 16, 8006, Zürich, Switzerland

    • Thomas. W. Crowther
  8. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PT, UK

    • Jonathan R. De Long
  9. Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, UMR 5175 (CNRS – Université de Montpellier – Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier – EPHE), 1919 Route de Mende, Montpellier, 34293, France

    • Gregoire T. Freschet
  10. Department of Forest Ecology and Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 901-83, Umeå, Sweden

    • Paul Kardol
    •  & David A. Wardle
  11. Department of Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, PO Box 7044, 750 07, Uppsala, Sweden

    • Maria Viketoft
  12. Asian School of the Environment, Nanyang Technological University, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore, 639798, Singapore

    • David A. Wardle
  13. Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, 80307, USA

    • William R. Wieder
  14. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, VA, USA

    • Stephen A. Wood
  15. Laboratory of Nematology, Wageningen University, PO Box 8123, 6700 ES, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Wim H. van der Putten


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M.A.B. and G.F.V. designed the study, co-wrote the manuscript, constructed litterbags and carried out the lab analyses. All authors established, maintained and collected data from the field sites. M.A.B., G.F.V., D.S.M. and S.A.W. analysed data. All authors contributed to data interpretation and writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark A. Bradford.

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