Tools and perspectives for a unified approach to understanding microbial ecology in the critical zone
Abstract:Microbial communities that control nutrient transformation and storage in ecosystems are themselves influenced by landscape topography and vegetative cover. Globally, disturbances such as fires and insect outbreaks are increasing in frequency and severity with enormous impacts on global carbon cycling. The resiliency of soil microbial communities to these heterogeneous disturbances determines rates of nutrient transformations as well as ecosystem structure and recovery.
Natural and anthropogenic disturbances are a common thread throughout Critical Zone Observatories and ecosystems in general. Using the 2013 Thompson Ridge Fire in the Jemez River Basin CZO as a case study, we examine the effect of a wildfire disturbance regime on successional changes in soil microbiota and ecosystem fluxes across a landscape with high topographic variation. We find that, layered over the topographic controls of hotspots of biogeochemical activity, fire alters organic substrate quality, microbial biomass, community structure, and activity. For example, fire increases soil pH, which is commonly found as an explanatory variable describing bacterial community structure. Soil microbes excrete exoenzymes to decompose polymers and acquire nutrients, and these activities can indicate changing microbial function or soil quality. In these mixed conifer forests, we find shifts from carbon to nitrogen-dominated exoenzyme activities in burned forests with alkaline soils, suggesting shifts of microbial taxa and function that correspond with recovering soil microbial biomass.
More generally we ask – what combination of tools and perspectives is needed to fully understand soil microbial ecology and biogeochemistry of the critical zone? Results from an NSF Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) CZO Network Biogeochemistry Workshop highlight the importance of incorporating a standard suite of microbial activity and community assays along with soil biogeochemical and flux measurements to enable comparisons across the broader CZO network. These characterizations would provide regional microbial function and biodiversity data in a standardized framework that can be used to enable more effective management and valuation of critical zone services and inform projections under global change scenarios.