Changes in variability of soil moisture alter microbial community C and N resource use

TitleChanges in variability of soil moisture alter microbial community C and N resource use
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsTiemann, LK, Billings, SA
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Pagination1837 - 1847
Accession NumberKNZ001757

Grassland ecosystems contain ~12% of global soil organic carbon (C) stocks and are located in regions where global climate change will likely alter the timing and size of precipitation events, increasing soil moisture variability. In response to increased soil moisture variability and other forms of stress, microorganisms can induce ecosystem-scale alterations in C and N cycling processes through alterations in their function. We explored the influence of physiological stress on microbial communities by manipulating moisture variability in soils from four grassland sites in the Great Plains, representing a precipitation gradient of 485-1003 mm y-1. Keeping water totals constant, we manipulated the frequency and size of water additions and dry down periods in these soils by applying water in two different, two-week long wetting-drying cycles in a 72-day laboratory incubation. To assess the effects of the treatments on microbial community function, we measured C mineralization, N dynamics, extracellular enzyme activities (EEA) and a proxy for substrate use efficiency. In soils from all four sites undergoing a long interval (LI) treatment for which added water was applied once at the beginning of each two-week cycle, 1.4-2.0 times more C was mineralized compared to soils undergoing a short interval (SI) treatment, for which four wetting events were evenly distributed over each two-week cycle. A proxy for carbon use efficiency (CUE) suggests declines in this parameter with the greater soil moisture stress imposed in LI soils from all four different native soil moisture regimes. A decline in CUE in LI soils may have been related to an increased effort by microbes to obtain N-rich organic substrates for use as protection against osmotic shock, consistent with EEA data. These results contrast with similar in situ studies of response to increased soil moisture variability and may indicate divergent autotrophic vs. heterotrophic responses to increased moisture variability. Increases in microbial N demand and decreases in microbial CUE with increased moisture variability observed in this study, regardless of the soils' site of origin, imply that these systems may experience enhanced heterotrophic CO2 release and declines in plant-available N with climate change. This has particularly important implications for C budgets in these grasslands when coupled with the declines in net primary productivity reported in other studies as a result of increases in precipitation variability across the region.