Management intensity alters decomposition via biological pathways


Current conceptual models predict that changes in plant litter chemistry during decomposition are primarily regulated by both initial litter chemistry and the stage—or extent—of mass loss. Far less is known about how variations in decomposer community structure (e.g., resulting from different ecosystem management types) could influence litter chemistry during decomposition. Given the recent agricultural intensification occurring globally and the importance of litter chemistry in regulating soil organic matter storage, our objectives were to determine the potential effects of agricultural management on plant litter chemistry and decomposition rates, and to investigate possible links between ecosystem management, litter chemistry and decomposition, and decomposer community composition and activity. We measured decomposition rates, changes in litter chemistry, extracellular enzyme activity, microarthropod communities, and bacterial versus fungal relative abundance in replicated conventional-till, no-till, and old field agricultural sites for both corn and grass litter. After one growing season, litter decomposition under conventional-till was 20% greater than in old field communities. However, decomposition rates in no-till were not significantly different from those in old field or conventional-till sites. After decomposition, grass residue in both conventional- and no-till systems was enriched in total polysaccharides relative to initial litter, while grass litter decomposed in old fields was enriched in nitrogen-bearing compounds and lipids. These differences corresponded with differences in decomposer communities, which also exhibited strong responses to both litter and management type. Overall, our results indicate that agricultural intensification can increase litter decomposition rates, alter decomposer communities, and influence litter chemistry in ways that could have important and long-term effects on soil organic matter dynamics. We suggest that future efforts to more accurately predict soil carbon dynamics under different management regimes may need to explicitly consider how changes in litter chemistry during decomposition are influenced by the specific metabolic capabilities of the extant decomposer communities.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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