Seasonal dynamics of microbial community composition and function in oak canopy and open grassland soils

M P Waldrop, M K Firestone
Microbial Ecology 2006, 52 (3): 470-9
Soil microbial communities are closely associated with aboveground plant communities, with multiple potential drivers of this relationship. Plants can affect available soil carbon, temperature, and water content, which each have the potential to affect microbial community composition and function. These same variables change seasonally, and thus plant control on microbial community composition may be modulated or overshadowed by annual climatic patterns. We examined microbial community composition, C cycling processes, and environmental data in California annual grassland soils from beneath oak canopies and in open grassland areas to distinguish factors controlling microbial community composition and function seasonally and in association with the two plant overstory communities. Every 3 months for up to 2 years, we monitored microbial community composition using phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis, microbial biomass, respiration rates, microbial enzyme activities, and the activity of microbial groups using isotope labeling of PLFA biomarkers (13C-PLFA). Distinct microbial communities were associated with oak canopy soils and open grassland soils and microbial communities displayed seasonal patterns from year to year. The effects of plant species and seasonal climate on microbial community composition were similar in magnitude. In this Mediterranean ecosystem, plant control of microbial community composition was primarily due to effects on soil water content, whereas the changes in microbial community composition seasonally appeared to be due, in large part, to soil temperature. Available soil carbon was not a significant control on microbial community composition. Microbial community composition (PLFA) and 13C-PLFA ordination values were strongly related to intra-annual variability in soil enzyme activities and soil respiration, but microbial biomass was not. In this Mediterranean climate, soil microclimate appeared to be the master variable controlling microbial community composition and function.

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