Plant roots alter microbial potential for mediation of soil organic carbon decomposition

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 9:15 AM
Mary Firestone1, Shengjing Shi1,2, Donald Herman1, Zhili He2 and Jizhong Zhou2, (1)University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States, (2)University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, United States
Plant root regulation of soil organic carbon (SOC) decomposition is a key controller of terrestrial C-cycling. Although many studies have tested possible mechanisms underlying plant “priming” of decomposition, few have investigated the microbial mediators of decomposition, which can be greatly influenced by plant activities. Here we examined effects of Avena fatua roots on decomposition of 13C-labeled root litter in a California grassland soil over two simulated growing-seasons. The presence of plant roots consistently suppressed rates of litter decomposition. Reduction of inorganic nitrogen (N) concentration in soil reduced but did not completely relieve this suppressive effect. The presence of plants significantly altered the abundance, composition and functional potential of microbial communities. Significantly higher signal intensities of genes capable of degrading low molecular weight organic compounds (e.g., glucose, formate and malate) were observed in microbial communities from planted soils, while microorganisms in unplanted soils had higher relative abundances of genes involved in degradation of some macromolecules (e.g., hemicellulose and lignin). Additionally, compared to unplanted soils, microbial communities from planted soils had higher signal intensities of proV and proW, suggesting microbial osmotic stress in planted soils. Possible mechanisms for the observed inhibition of decomposition are 1) microbes preferentially using simple substrates from root exudates and 2) soil drying by plant evapotranspiration impairing microbial activity. We propose a simple data-based model suggesting that the impacts of roots, the soil environment, and microbial community composition on decomposition processes result from impacts of these factors on the soil microbial functional gene potential.