Field and lab conditions alter microbial enzyme and biomass dynamics driving decomposition of the same leaf litter

Zachary L. Rinkes, University of Toledo
Robert L. Sinsabaugh, University of New Mexico
Daryl L. Moorhead, University of Toledo
A. Stuart Grandy, University of New Hampshire, Durham
Michael N. Weintraub, University of Toledo

This is an open access article published by Frontiers in Frontiers in Microbiology in 2013, available online:


Fluctuations in climate and edaphic factors influence field decomposition rates and preclude a complete understanding of how microbial communities respond to plant litter quality. In contrast, laboratory microcosms isolate the intrinsic effects of litter chemistry and microbial community from extrinsic effects of environmental variation. Used together, these paired approaches provide mechanistic insights to decomposition processes. In order to elucidate the microbial mechanisms underlying how environmental conditions alter the trajectory of decay, we characterized microbial biomass, respiration, enzyme activities, and nutrient dynamics during early (<10% mass loss), mid- (10–40% mass loss), and late (>40% mass loss) decay in parallel field and laboratory litter bag incubations for deciduous tree litters with varying recalcitrance (dogwood < maple < maple-oak mixture < oak). In the field, mass loss was minimal (<10%) over the first 50 days (January–February), even for labile litter types, despite above-freezing soil temperatures and adequate moisture during these winter months. In contrast, microcosms displayed high C mineralization rates in the first week. During mid-decay, the labile dogwood and maple litters in the field had higher mass loss per unit enzyme activity than the lab, possibly due to leaching of soluble compounds. Microbial biomass to litter mass (B:C) ratios peaked in the field during late decay, but B:C ratios declined between mid- and late decay in the lab. Thus, microbial biomass did not have a consistent relationship with litter quality between studies. Higher oxidative enzyme activities in oak litters in the field, and higher nitrogen (N) accumulation in the lab microcosms occurred in late decay. We speculate that elevated N suppressed fungal activity and/or biomass in microcosms. Our results suggest that differences in microbial biomass and enzyme dynamics alter the decay trajectory of the same leaf litter under field and lab conditions.