Long-term effects of copper exposure to agricultural soil function and microbial community structure at a controlled and experimental field site


The long-term effect of heavy metals on soil microbial communities and their function is relatively unknown and little work has been done in field settings. To address this gap, we revisited a field-based experiment, 12 years after the application of copper (Cu) to agricultural soils, with treatment concentrations ranging from 0 to 3310 mg Cu kg−1 soil. We measured the long-term effects of Cu exposure to soils using multiple functionality assessments and environmental DNA-based community analyses. The assessment results revealed that soils that received moderate to high Cu doses had still not recovered functionality 12-years post exposure. However, plots that received doses of 200 mg kg−1 Cu or less appeared to have a functionality index not dissimilar to control plots. Environmental DNA analyses of the microbial communities revealed a high level of beta diversity in low Cu treatment plots, whereas communities within high Cu treatment plots had similar community structures to one another (low beta diversity), indicating that specific Cu-tolerant or dormant taxa are selected for in high-Cu environments. Interestingly, high Cu plots had higher within-sample taxa counts (alpha diversity) compared with controls and low Cu plots. We hypothesise that taxa in high Cu plots activated dormancy mechanisms, such that their genetic signal remained present, whilst the functionality of the soil was reduced. Many species identified in high Cu plots are known to have associated dormancy mechanisms and survive in high stress environments. Understanding how these mechanisms collectively contribute to contaminant outcomes is of great importance for the goals of predicting and managing microbial communities and their function. As we found that Cu concentrations above 200 mg kg−1 can cause significant functionality loss and a selective pressure on microbial communities, it is recommended that Cu concentrations above 200 mg kg−1are avoided in agricultural soils.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

Publication Date


Journal Title

Environmental Pollution



Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Document Type



© 2020 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.