The role of microbial community composition in controlling soil respiration responses to temperature

Marc D Auffret, Kristiina Karhu, Amit Khachane, Jennifer A J Dungait, Fiona Fraser, David W Hopkins, Philip A Wookey, Brajesh K Singh, Thomas E Freitag, Iain P Hartley, James I Prosser

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Rising global temperatures may increase the rates of soil organic matter decomposition by heterotrophic microorganisms, potentially accelerating climate change further by releasing additional carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. However, the possibility that microbial community responses to prolonged warming may modify the temperature sensitivity of soil respiration creates large uncertainty in the strength of this positive feedback. Both compensatory responses (decreasing temperature sensitivity of soil respiration in the long-term) and enhancing responses (increasing temperature sensitivity) have been reported, but the mechanisms underlying these responses are poorly understood. In this study, microbial biomass, community structure and the activities of dehydrogenase and β-glucosidase enzymes were determined for 18 soils that had previously demonstrated either no response or varying magnitude of enhancing or compensatory responses of temperature sensitivity of heterotrophic microbial respiration to prolonged cooling. The soil cooling approach, in contrast to warming experiments, discriminates between microbial community responses and the consequences of substrate depletion, by minimising changes in substrate availability. The initial microbial community composition, determined by molecular analysis of soils showing contrasting respiration responses to cooling, provided evidence that the magnitude of enhancing responses was partly related to microbial community composition. There was also evidence that higher relative abundance of saprophytic Basidiomycota may explain the compensatory response observed in one soil, but neither microbial biomass nor enzymatic capacity were significantly affected by cooling. Our findings emphasise the key importance of soil microbial community responses for feedbacks to global change, but also highlight important areas where our understanding remains limited.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0165448
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number10
Publication statusPrint publication - 31 Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Biomass
  • Cell Respiration
  • Fumigation
  • Linear Models
  • Microbiota
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Soil/chemistry
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors


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