Plant production and the biomass of soil microorganisms in late-successional ecosystems: A continental-scale study

TitlePlant production and the biomass of soil microorganisms in late-successional ecosystems: A continental-scale study
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1994
AuthorsZak, DR, Tilman, D, Parameter, RR, Fisher, FM, Rice, CW, Vose, J, Milchunas, D, Martin, CW
Pagination2333 -2347
Accession NumberKNZ00472

Annual C inputs from plant production in terrestrial ecosystems only meet the maintenance energy requirements of soil microorganisms, allowing for little or no net annual increase in their biomass. Because microbial growth within soil is limited by C availability, we reasoned that plant production should, in part, control the biomass of soil microorganisms. We also reasoned that soil texture should further modify the influence of plant production on soil C availability because fine-textured soils typically support more microbial biomass than coarse-textured soils. To test these ideas, we quantified the relationship between aboveground net primary production (ANPP) and soil microbial biomass in late-successional ecosystems distributed along a continent-wide gradient in North America. We also measured labile pools of C and N within the soil because they represent potential substrate for microbial activity. Ecosystems ranged from a Douglas-fir forest in the western United States to the grasslands of the mid-continent to the hardwood forest in the eastern U.S. Estimates of ANPP obtained from the literature ranged from 82 to 1460 g@?m^-^2@?yr^-^1. Microbial biomass C and N were estimated by the fumigation-incubation technique. Labile soil pools of C and N and first-order rate constants for microbial respiration and net N mineralization were estimated using a long-term (32 wk) laboratory incubation. Regression analyses were used to relate ANPP and soil texture with microbial biomass and labile soil C and N pools. Microbial biomass carbon ranged from 2 g/m^2 in the desert grassland to 134 g/m^2 in the tallgrass prairie; microbial N displayed a similar trend among ecosystems. Labile C pools, derived from a first-order rate equation, ranged from 115 g/m^2 in the desert grassland to 491 g/m^2 in the southern hardwood forest. First-order rate constants for microbial respiration (k) fell within a narrow range of values (0.180 to 0.357 wk^-^1), suggesting that labile C pools were chemically similar among this diverse set of ecosystems. Potential net N mineralization rates over the 32-wk incubation were linear in most ecosystems with first-order responses only in the alpine tundra, tallgrass prairie, and forests. Microbial biomass C displayed a positive, linear relationship with ANPP (r^2 = 0.51), but was not significantly related to soil texture. Labile C also was linearly related to ANPP (r^2 = 0.32) and to soil texture (r^2 = 0.33). Results indicate that microbial biomass and labile organic matter pools change predictably across broad gradients of ANPP, supporting the idea that microbial growth in soil is constrained by C availability.