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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Microbial carbon use efficiency (CUE) is a critical regulator of soil organic matter dynamics and terrestrial carbon fluxes, with strong implications for soil biogeochemistry models. While ecologists increasingly appreciate the importance of CUE, its core concepts remain ambiguous: terminology is inconsistent and confusing, methods capture variable temporal and spatial scales, and the significance of many fundamental drivers remains inconclusive. Here we outline the processes underlying microbial efficiency and propose a conceptual framework that structures the definition of CUE according to increasingly broad temporal and spatial drivers where (1) CUEP reflects population-scale carbon use efficiency of microbes governed by species-specific metabolic and thermodynamic constraints, (2) CUEC defines community-scale microbial efficiency as gross biomass production per unit substrate taken up over short time scales, largely excluding recycling of microbial necromass and exudates, and (3) CUEE reflects the ecosystem-scale efficiency of net microbial biomass production (growth) per unit substrate taken up as iterative breakdown and recycling of microbial products occurs. CUEE integrates all internal and extracellular constraints on CUE and hence embodies an ecosystem perspective that fully captures all drivers of microbial biomass synthesis and decay. These three definitions are distinct yet complementary, capturing the capacity for carbon storage in microbial biomass across different ecological scales. By unifying the existing concepts and terminology underlying microbial efficiency, our framework enhances data interpretation and theoretical advances.

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© The Author(s) 2016


This is an article published by Springer in Biogeochemistry in 2016, available online: