Interactions between leaf litter quality, particle size, and microbial community during the earliest stage of decay


With global change expected to alter aspects of the carbon (C) cycle, empirical data describing how microorganisms function in different environmental conditions are needed to increase predictive capabilities of microbially-driven decomposition models. Given the importance of accelerated C fluxes during early decay in C cycling, we characterized how varying litter qualities (maple vs. oak) and sizes (ground vs. 0.25 cm2 vs. 1 cm2), and contrasting soils (sandy vs. loamy), altered microbial biomass-carbon and community structure, respiration, enzyme activities, and inorganic nutrients over the initial 2 weeks of decomposition. Our hypotheses were (1) mixing ground maple with loam should result in a quicker, more prolonged respiration response than other treatments; and (2) “priming”, or substrate-stimulated soil organic matter turnover, should be minimal over the first few days due to soluble C substrate uptake. Respiration peaks, biomass increases, nutrient immobilization, low enzyme activities, and minimal priming occurred in all treatments over the first 72 h. These general features suggest soluble C compounds are degraded before polymeric substrates regardless of litter size or type, or soil. Ground litter addition to the high C and microbial biomass loam resulted in a more prolonged respiration peak than the poorly aggregated sand. Priming was greater in loam than the C limited sandy soil after the first 72 h, likely due to co-metabolism of labile and recalcitrant substrates. We conclude that the general features of early decay are widespread and predictable, yet differences in litter and soil characteristics influence the temporal pattern and magnitude of C flux.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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